What Next for Iconic Hubble Telescope as James Webb Poised for Launch

The Hubble Space Telescope will still be NASA's primary visible light telescope after the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) later this week, experts at the space agency said.

JWST is due to launch on December 25 at 7:20 a.m. ET on an Ariane 5 rocket provided by the European Space Agency (ESA).

The telescope's launch is much anticipated. NASA has called it the successor to the famous Hubble telescope, which has provided some of the most stunning space images ever since its launch in 1990 and is still used in scientific research today.

JWST will improve on Hubble in a number of ways. It will be able to peer further into space, and thus further back in time. Its primary mirror has a light-collecting area that is 6.25 times bigger than that of Hubble.

In recent months, Hubble has encountered several problems, including a computer glitch in July that caused it to shut down for days.

But NASA officials told Newsweek that JWST won't replace Hubble, nor are there plans to decommission the 30-year-old telescope any time soon. In fact, Hubble will continue to spearhead NASA's efforts to observe distant objects in certain light spectrums.

"Hubble will remain primary for visible and ultraviolet wavelengths of light, which JWST cannot see," said Hubble senior project scientist Jennifer Wiseman. "JWST will become the primary deep space imaging telescope in infrared wavelengths of light."

"Hubble's unique view of ultraviolet and visible light will be an essential scientific partner with JWST's infrared observations in order to compare galaxies at different cosmic times, deduce the composition of exoplanet atmospheres, and study the dynamics of stars and planets."

Two Different Telescopes

The James Webb telescope will be able to peer at objects whose light was emitted more than 13.5 billion years ago, which Hubble can't see. This is because this light has been shifted into the infrared wavelengths that JWST is specifically designed to detect.

But because JWST has been designed in this way, it will miss things that Hubble can see, and vice versa.

"Hubble and Webb are scientifically complementary to each other," Hubble deputy project manager Jim Jeletic told Newsweek. "Observing the same astronomical objects with both telescopes allows for a more complete understanding of that object.

Jeletic added that Hubble is expected to continue to operate "into the late 2020s" or longer and that work is ongoing to prolong its mission, such as by preparing for future failures.

In addition, Jeletic said that both the Hubble and JWST missions are completely funded and staffed with independent budgets, so there would be no draining of Hubble resources to carry out the JWST mission. "No diversion of resources has occurred," he said.

In short, while JWST is no doubt a highly anticipated mission decades in the making, we haven't seen the last of Hubble yet.

James Webb Telescope
A photo of the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been described as the successor to Hubble. NASA/Chris Gunn/Getty