Over the past 25 years, the Hubble Space telescope has captured hundreds of thousands of images of distant galaxies. As the aging machine nears its end, others will follow in its footsteps.

“It follows on the legacy of Hubble,” Jonathan Arenberg, the Northrop Grumman Chief Engineer working on the James Webb Space Telescope, said.

It will launch in 2018 and is designed to replace Hubble – by traveling one million miles deeper into space.

“It’s going to fundamentally change the way we understand those first generation of stars,” Arenberg said.

The Webb telescope is designed to see in a spectrum known as infrared, allowing it to look deep into space, past other stars. It will use a series of high-tech mirrors, which were developed by Ball Aerospace in Boulder.

“We just finished integrating all of the mirrors, and so we have a completed telescope for the first time,” Allison Barto, the telescope’s program manager at Ball, said.

Barto said the James Webb telescope will be able to see stars that are 12 to 13 billion years old.

“Telescopes really are time machines, because we’re looking at objects that are very far away, and it takes time for the light to reach us,” she said. “And, so, however long that light has been traveling, that’s how far back we’re looking.”

The James Webb Space Telescope Lifted By Crane (Credit: NASA)
The James Webb Space Telescope Lifted By Crane (Credit: NASA)

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a much smaller telescope is under development from Lockheed Martin, called SPIDER (Segmented Planar Imaging Detector for Electro-optical Reconnaissance)

“It uses a lot of tiny lenses, instead of a giant mirror,” Mark Lewis, with Colorado-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said.

The tiny lenses allow for flexibility and the possibility of being as small, or as large, as a mission requires.

“Shrinking the telescope allows us to perhaps go on those missions that we never were able to do before,” Lewis said.

That is what all telescopes do: Help us see our place in the universe in a new way.

“It’s like revealing the last curtain in the cosmic story,” Arenberg said.

The James Webb telescope will launch in October 2018. Hubble will remain in operation for several more years, before eventually falling out of orbit and burning up as it re-enters Earth’s atmosphere.