On Oct. 12th, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived safely at Port de Pariacabo in French Guiana after spending 16 days traveling between California and South America. Since then, the observatory was transported to a cleanroom in the Guyanese Space Center (GSC). Here, crews “unboxed” the observatory from its protective cargo container in preparation for launch – now targetted for Dec. 18th.
These events were captured in a series of beautiful images recently shared by the Guyanese Space Center, the European Space Agency (ESA), and NASA via their JWST Twitter accounts (more are posted on the NASA JWST Flickr page). This process involved carefully lifting the telescope from its packing container and raising it vertically, the same configuration Webb its launches to space aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.
The voyage began with the James Webb being transported from Northrop Grumman’s headquarters in Redondo Beach, California, which is where the foldable observatory underwent final tests to ensure that it would deploy and operate properly once it reached space. By late August, the testing was complete, and engineers spent another month folding the observatory up and placing it in a protective container for transport.
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It was then loaded aboard the MN Colibri (a French cargo vessel) and began its journey down the coast towards the Panama Canal and French Guiana. With the mission safely there in one piece, the crews have unpacked it and set it in its launch configuration. Soon, it will be loaded aboard a payload capsule atop an Ariane 5 rocket and take off from the ESA’s Spaceport in Kourou. The transportation of Webb from California to the launch site, and the launch services that will be provided soon, are part of the ESA’s contribution to the mission.
The Canadian Space Agency (CSA) is also a contributor, having provided Webb‘s Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS). These will allow the telescope to point at and focus on objects of interest and assist in studying exoplanets, distant galaxies, and other types of astronomical objects (respectively). In exchange, Canadian scientists will receive a guaranteed allotment of Webb‘s observation time.
This launch, and everything that helped make it possible, is something that the astronomical community has waited for almost thirty years to see. Planning began in the mid-90s, a few years after the Hubble Space Telescope and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory‘s successful deployment. With two more “Great Observatories” preparing to go to space by the early 2000s – the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope – NASA planners began contemplating what the next step would be.
In 1996, these plans culminated with the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST) project. In 2002, it was renamed after James Webb (1906-1992), NASA’s second administrator (from 1961–1968), who played a central role in the Apollo Program. NASA will be holding a series of virtual media briefings and events in the weeks leading up to the launch, starting with a media briefing on the engineering and spacecraft deployments on Tues. Nov. 2nd.
This will be followed by a morning and afternoon briefing on Thurs. Nov. 18th, which will address the science goals and science instruments (respectively). The full schedule can be found here. These events are intended to convey the significance of this mission and the scientific breakthroughs that are anticipated. As NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a recent NASA press statement:
“The James Webb Space Telescope is a colossal achievement, built to transform our view of the universe and deliver amazing science. Webb will look back over 13 billion years to the light created just after the big bang, with the power to show humanity the farthest reaches of space that we have ever seen. We are now very close to unlocking mysteries of the cosmos, thanks to the skills and expertise of our phenomenal team.”
This mission has been a long time in the making and has become only more poignant with all of the delays in the past few years. Some of this arose from budget constraints and the recent pandemic and from the fact that the JWST is the largest, most complex, and most sophisticated observatory ever launched. To ensure that nothing goes wrong and servicing missions are needed to get it in working order (as was the case with Hubble), every system needed to be rigorously tested and every “anomaly” worked out in advance.
Once deployed and operational, the James Webb mission will be the premier space science observatory for the next decade. Before this decade is over, it will be joined by the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (RST), named after the “Mother of Hubble.” These and other next-generation observatories will survey the large-scale structure of the cosmos, aid in the search for extraterrestrial life, and unlock some of the deepest mysteries about our Universe!