The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has brought us marvelous images of whirlpool galaxies, supernovas and even questionable space phenomena. But building and getting the device operational was an incredible feat of science, involving hundreds of people from all around the world and three space agencies.
The telescope isn’t on this planet — it orbits the sun. The JWST was launched on December 25, 2021, at 7:20 a.m. EST. In total, it weighs more than 13,000 lbs.
Scientists used the Ariane 5 rocket, a special heavy-duty launch vehicle developed and operated by French company Arianespace with the European Space Agency, to lift JWST into orbit from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.
Once in orbit, it took another six months for staff to tinker with the calibration as it cooled down to operating temperature, according to NASA. The first deep field images were released in July 2022.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)
Who exactly was involved in developing the science and technology behind the telescope and its operation? NASA says there are currently more than 1,200 scientists, engineers and technicians that work on the project from 14 countries, but many thousands more worked on its development. NASA operates the telescope jointly alongside the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
To highlight some of the scientists and engineers that made key contributions to the project, Discover spoke to Eric Smith, the associate director for research in the Astrophysics Division and the program scientist for JWST. Smith was the second astronomer hired on the project by John Mather in 1996.
“I thought it would be a fun little project and here I am one career later,” says Smith, who previously served as the program director for JWST.
American astrophysicist John C. Mather is the senior project scientist emeritus involved in the development of the James Webb Space Telescope. Mather won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 2006, along with George Smoot, for his work using the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), a satellite that operated from 1989 to 1993, to map the electromagnetic radiation produced by the Big Bang.
Mather became the senior project scientist on the JWST project in 1995. During his work with COBE, Mather developed skills at negotiating between what the scientists want and what the engineers and technicians can feasibly accomplish.
“John’s specialty is just that he is really freaking smart,” Smith says. “He was able to bring both communities who don’t always speak the same language together.”
Peter Stockman wrote a proposal for building a telescope that would succeed the Hubble Space Telescope over 20 years ago, but his idea wasn’t accepted at first. Later, as NASA started to seriously think about their next big telescope, Mather began to work with Stockman to develop the proposal for the JWST.
Meanwhile, at the Carnegie Observatories, astronomer Alan Dressler had written a report called “HST and Beyond,” talking about the next major projects NASA should be tackling. In particular, the report focused on the need for an ultraviolet optical infrared telescope that could take our knowledge of space far deeper than we’d ever ventured before.
Pierre Bely isn’t an astronomer, but an optical engineer. Out of all the scientists on this list, Bely is perhaps most responsible for the way JWST looks today. When he joined the project, he had already worked on designing the Canada France Hawaii Telescope, a ground-based instrument operational on the Big Island since 1979.
While scientists were developing JWST, it was Bely who came up with the concept of using a parasol to block unwanted light, instead of the tube most people associate with a telescope — making it a “naked telescope,” as Smith describes the James Webb. This streamlining was crucial because it didn’t weigh down the JWST with the huge amount of extra mass a tube of this size would have required.
“It’s just a heavy thing you’ve got to carry up in a rocket,” Smith says. “Pierre is credited for coming up with the Webb architecture.”
Marcia Rieke led the team that developed the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the instrument responsible for most of the big, beautiful images produced by JWST. An astronomy professor at the University of Arizona, Rieke worked with engineers at Lockheed Martin to develop the camera, and is now the principal investigator of NIRCam.
John Hutchings was key in organizing the Canadian contribution to JWST, which consisted of a guidance sensor and an infrared imager. The telescope’s Fine Guidance Sensor allows its camera to fix on deep space locations, while the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph detects light and exoplanets.
“I always joke it’s our neighbors to the north keeping the U.S. stable,” Smith says of the guidance sensor.
Peter Jakobsen is a Danish astronomer who headed the European Space Agency’s effort to develop the Near-Infrared Spectograph (NIRSpec), a device that can observe as many as 100 objects at the same time — making it the first spectrograph in space that can observe multiple objects at the same time.
Astronomers George Rieke and Gillian Wright co-led the team that developed the fourth major instrument on the telescope, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). This device has a camera and a spectrograph, and observes a kind of light from distant galaxies, coalescing stars, comets and objects in the Kuiper Belt. Wright brought together 14 European institutions to work on the MIRI instrument.
“Gillian is a bit of a force of nature,” Smith adds.