It’s been 20 years since NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope arrived at the launch site. From there, it will mount a rocket into orbit, then soar beyond the moon. It’s the most powerful (and expensive) telescope humanity has ever built, and it’s almost ready to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos. Well, not all of them, but it’s sure to build on the knowledge we’ve gained from Hubble.
The Webb telescope will be launched from the European Space Agency (ESA) spaceport in French Guiana. Several weeks ago, NASA announced that it had completed all engineering work on the spacecraft. The team prepared the equipment for shipment from California and placed it on a ship to transport 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 originally supposed to cost around half a billion dollars, but that was in the late ’90s. Over time, a myriad of problems and delays drove the cost up to around $ 10 billion, twenty times the initial budget. The changes have been particularly rapid over the past year, in part thanks to the challenges introduced by the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been several launch dates slated for Webb in 2021, but delays pushed it back to December 18. This gives NASA and ESA some time to prepare the telescope.
When deployed, Webb will be about the size of a tennis court. However, it has been cleverly designed to fit inside the 5.4 meter diameter Ariane 5 rocket. Parts of the mirror and sun visor will need to deploy once the spacecraft reaches the second. Lagrange Terre-Soleil point (L2) at about 1.5 million kilometers. That means everything has to go perfectly – no one will be able to go out there and complete a Hubble-style maintenance mission.
The next step is for the spaceport team to go through the hardware in great detail. At the same time, Ariane 5 components will arrive from Europe to be assembled in the launcher integration building. Once docked to the rocket, technicians will use a special curtain to wrap the telescope inside a clean room. The room itself will also have additional filters installed to further protect the telescope.
If all goes according to plan, Webb is expected to leave Earth forever on December 18. It will take about a month to reach L2 and deploy. We’ll all be on the edge of our seats until he’s officially online.