NOEL KING, HOST:
NASA is close to giving us a new view of the universe. The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in December. It's a successor to Hubble. Here's NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Hubble launched into space over three decades ago in 1990. The first images it sent back were unexpectedly fuzzy. Its mirror turned out to have a tiny flaw.
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JOHNNY CARSON: Have you heard about the problems with the Hubble Space Telescope?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Hubble trouble made this telescope a household name and fodder for comedians like Johnny Carson.
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CARSON: And they call the NASA official repairman to fix it. And he said he'll be up there sometime in the 21st century between noon and 5.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It was actually just a few years later that astronauts went up and fixed Hubble. What Hubble saw then was mind-blowing. Robert Hurt is an astronomer with Caltech. He remembers being at a science conference when some of Hubble's first images were unveiled.
ROBERT HURT: It was like being at a rock concert. I mean, people were cheering.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says before Hubble, big telescopes on the ground had to look up through the Earth's turbulent atmosphere.
HURT: An atmosphere has a distorting effect on light as it comes through.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hubble was above all that. Its perch in space gave it crisp, clear, detailed views. Familiar stars and clouds of gas were suddenly transformed into gorgeous, glowing visions that got names like the Pillars of Creation. Those celestial scenes became iconic.
JANE RIGBY: I think Hubble certainly is the first telescope where the images appeared everywhere.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Jane Rigby is a NASA astronomer.
RIGBY: I have socks with Hubble pictures on them. I've seen them on the sides of a U-Haul going down the highway.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: They're on kids' lunchboxes, coffee mugs, T-shirts.
RIGBY: And they hit us in a kind of awe-inspiring, connected to everything, maybe spiritual way.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Now NASA is getting ready to launch a new space telescope named after a former agency administrator, James Webb. It's been in the works for about as long as Hubble has been in orbit. Rigby says the huge James Webb Telescope will be all folded up inside its rocket and will unfurl out in space.
RIGBY: So it's either a transformer or it's origami, depending on whether you like pop culture or arts and crafts.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And hopefully, all of this will go without a hitch because no repairs are possible this time. The telescope will travel to a lonely spot about a million miles away from Earth to look farther out than we've ever seen before. Light takes time to travel through space. And Rigby says Webb will be able to capture light that's been traveling for almost the entire history of the universe.
RIGBY: Where we'll be able to see galaxies as they looked a couple hundred million years after the big bang.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This telescope will be able to do other amazing stuff, too, like study the atmospheres of planets in other solar systems. But here's the question.
RIGBY: Will Webb images look as gorgeous as Hubble images, right? Will we love them not just as scientifically valuable, but are they going to knock our socks off?
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She thinks the answer is yes. In fact, she says the James Webb team has a top-secret plan for what pictures to release to the public first. She says these are images...
RIGBY: That are intended to be jaw droppingly beautiful, powerful both visually and scientifically.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Hubble detects mostly optical wavelengths of light. That's the kind of light our eyes can see. James Webb was built to see the universe in infrared. Infrared light is normally invisible to us. But it is better at seeing older, colder objects. It also can see through dust. Nikole Lewis is an astronomer at Cornell University.
NIKOLE LEWIS: A lot of those iconic Hubble images are because you're seeing dust scatter light all over the place, which is beautiful. But it makes it really hard to study the stuff that's inside.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She says there will be a bit of artistic license in deciding how to assign colors that our eyes can see to the various wavelengths of infrared light. But then there's always been a certain amount of artistry in Hubble images, too. Hubble's cameras sent back black-and-white pictures. Vivid colors are added later. Lisa Storrie-Lombardi is an astronomer at the Las Cumbres Observatory. She expects that James Webb will produce its own iconic images.
LISA STORRIE-LOMBARDI: It's going to take magnificent images in the infrared. So they'll just be in a different wavelength of light. But they will be beautiful.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: She served as the project manager for Spitzer, a different space telescope that saw in infrared. It was smaller and less powerful than James Webb will be. Still, it produced plenty of stunning pictures.
STORRIE-LOMBARDI: I knew Spitzer had really, you know, hit the big time when CNN posted one of our images in the first year of the mission and called it a Hubble image (laughter).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Because for the public, Hubble has been the gold standard for cosmic eye candy. And soon, the world will see how images from the James Webb Space Telescope measure up.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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