NASA and its partners have been developing the James Webb Space Telescope for an unfathomably long time, but we’re almost there. NASA has announced a launch date for the $10 billion telescope, and although this is not the first one it’s had, this one seems doable as the telescope itself is complete and almost ready to ship out to the launch site. If all goes as planned, the Webb Telescope will blast off on Dec. 18, 2021. Of course, things have rarely gone to plan with this project.
Work on this successor to Hubble began in the late 90s, and it was originally only supposed to cost $500 million. That quickly doubled to $1 billion, and then it crept higher with each new budget. In the early days, NASA hoped to have Webb ready to launch in 2007, but it didn’t narrow it down further. In 2019, NASA felt confident enough to peg March 2021 for the launch, but that date slipped, as did the later Oct. 31 launch date. This is largely thanks to delays arising from the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed work at NASA.
Last month, NASA announced that it had completed work on the telescope. All the components were installed and tested, so the only thing left to do was package it up for transport to the launch site. The December launch will take place at the European Space Agency’s facility in French Guiana, where it will be mated to an Ariane 5 rocket. Before the big moment, a team of engineers will go over the hardware in detail to ensure it didn’t suffer any damage during the trip, and also that numerous protective covers for ground operations are removed.
Launch date update! December 18, 2021 is now the target launch date for #NASAWebb! 🚀 This date was coordinated between @NASA @ESA, and @Arianespace.
Next: Webb will be packed for its journey to the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.
Read more: https://t.co/iOwqMiv79y pic.twitter.com/NLUChLOLG4
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) September 8, 2021
Getting the telescope into space will be a major hurdle, but the telescope won’t be home-free when it leaves Earth behind. While Hubble is in low-Earth orbit, Webb will travel about a million miles away to the second Earth-Sun Lagrange point (L2). There, it will unfurl its sunshield to keep its instruments cool, allowing it to peer deeper into the infrared than Hubble ever could. The main drawback of this locale is that the telescope will be too far away to repair if something goes wrong, as it famously did with Hubble.
When it’s operational, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the most powerful observatory in human history. It will be able to see dimmer, more distant objects like the earliest galaxies and maybe even some exoplanets. The people who have spent their careers building this spacecraft will undoubtedly have their fingers crossed on Dec. 18.
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