JWST Ready to Hit the Road

JWST Ready to Hit the Road

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is finally ready to hit the road — first to South America and then to its final destination a million miles from Earth. Years late and billions over budget, enthusiasm for the telescope nevertheless has not waned as scientists eagerly anticipate groundbreaking cosmological discoveries.

Development, construction and testing is now complete and the $9 billion telescope (excluding operations) is being packed into its shipping container for its journey from Northrop Grumman’s factory in California through the Panama Canal to Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America. The European Space Agency (ESA), a partner in the program, is providing the launch on an Ariane 5 rocket at no cost to NASA.

The decades of effort just to get to this point has been arduous, but much more lies ahead. The Ariane 5 has a great track record, but a fairing vibration anomaly identified last year caused Arianespace, the company that builds and launches Ariane, to pause launches for almost a year. The rocket just successfully returned to flight on July 30, sending two communications satellites into orbit without incident. One more launch is scheduled before JWST.  A specific date has not been set for JWST to lift off. Originally scheduled for October 31, it now is expected sometime in November.

Launch is always risky, but that is just part of the story for JWST. It must unfold itself into its operational configuration during its month-long trip to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point (SEL-2) 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth. NASA talks about the “Seven Minutes of Terror” for its last two Mars rovers as they descended through the Martian atmosphere. This will be a month of nail-biting as the 18 gold-plated petals of the 6.5 meter (21 foot) array unfold along with a sunshade (to protect the telescope from the Sun and keep it cold enough for its infrared observations) and other critical equipment, not to mention mid-course corrections to get to SEL-2.

But first it must get to the Guiana Space Center in Kourou. It cannot be flown there because the shipping container is too large to travel by road between the local airport and the launch site. Thus it is going by boat. NASA has not said when the boat will set sail and likely will not provide many details for security reasons.

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