It’s a moment 20 years in the making—NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has arrived at the launch site. From there, it will ride a rocket into orbit, and then jet out beyond the moon. It’s the most powerful (and expensive) telescope humanity has ever built, and it’s almost ready to reveal the mysteries of the cosmos. Well, not all of them, but it’s sure to build on the knowledge we’ve garnered from Hubble.
The Webb telescope will launch from The European Space Agency’s (ESA) French Guiana spaceport. Several weeks back, NASA announced it had completed all engineering work on the spacecraft. The team prepped the hardware for shipping from California and put it on a ship to take it through the Panama Canal to South America. There, the precious cargo will be attached to an Ariane 5 rocket for launch.
The Webb telescope was initially supposed to cost about half a billion dollars, but that was back in the late 90s. Over time, myriad snags and delays have caused the cost to balloon to about $10 billion, twenty times the original budget. Changes have been coming especially fast in the last year, thanks in part to challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been several scheduled launch dates for Webb in 2021, but the delays have pushed it back to December 18th. That gives NASA and the ESA some time to get the telescope ready.
When deployed, Webb will be about the size of a tennis court. However, it has been cleverly engineered to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket’s 5.4-meter diameter. Parts of the mirror and the sun shield will need to deploy once the spacecraft reaches the second Earth-Sun Lagrange Point (L2) about a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away. That means everything has to go perfectly — no one will be able to go out there and complete a Hubble-style servicing mission.
The next step is for the team at the spaceport to go over the hardware in excruciating detail. Meanwhile, components for the Ariane 5 will be arriving from Europe for assembly in the launch vehicle integration building. Once mated to the rocket, technicians will use a special curtain to shroud the telescope inside a clean room. The room itself will also have extra filters installed to further protect the telescope.
If all goes as planned, Webb should leave Earth behind forever on December 18th. It will take about a month for it to reach L2 and deploy. We’ll all be on the edge of our seats until it’s officially online.
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