NASA’s long-awaited next-generation space telescope is finally ready for launch, as soon as the weather cooperates.
The James Webb Space Telescope, also known as the JWST or Webb, has been in the works for decades. During a press conference held on Tuesday (December 21), project officials confirmed that the observatory is ready for launch. However, within hours, NASA and its partners in the project announced that the long-delayed launch would be postponed for another day, until Saturday (December 25).
That decision was due to high-altitude winds at the Guiana Space Center launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, according to Jérôme Rives, vice president of European launch provider Arianespace, responsible for launching the observatory. The company will conduct another weather check on Wednesday (December 22) in hopes of confirming the new launch date.
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Scientists have been anticipating JWST’s revolutionary vision of the cosmos for years. When JWST can overcome its weather woes, its launch will begin a stressful deployment during a month-long journey that will cover 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers).
“It really is a higher level of complexity,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, during the press conference. “The test that has happened is what gives us calm, that’s why we are sleeping.”
Zurbuchen said he is confident in the team’s decision to proceed to the launch pad. “Rigorous testing has given us the ability to sit here and basically know, ‘Hey, we’ve done the work it took us to get to launch.’
Work at JWST, which also includes the European and Canadian space agencies, began in 1996 with the goal of a launch in 2007; 14 years later, the observatory finally got the go-ahead for liftoff during a launch readiness review on Tuesday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said during the press conference.
“This is an extraordinary mission,” Nelson said. “It’s a shining example of what we can achieve when we dream big. We’ve always known that this project would be a risky endeavor, but of course, when you want a big payoff, you usually have to take a big risk.”
Nelson recognized the rocky path of the telescope. “As with most extraordinary projects that are transformative, there have been some roadblocks, there have been some setbacks along the way,” he said.
But the agency remains committed to the scientific potential that JWST offers with its sharp infrared vision. “It’s like we’ve always been living with blinders,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said during the news conference. “Webb will take off his blinders and show us the formation of the universe.”
The observatory is scheduled to take off on Saturday (December 25) no earlier than 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT). NASA’s live coverage will begin at 6 am EST (1100 GMT) here on Space.com, courtesy of NASA, or you can watch it directly on NASA TV.
JWST will travel on an Ariane 5 rocket operated by Arianespace, which was unable to offer a detailed weather forecast, but said the only problem the team was monitoring was high-altitude winds. If the launch attempt is canceled on Saturday, the opportunities continue until the end of the year.
Despite the magnitude of the launch, Greg Robinson, director of the Webb program at NASA, echoed Zurbuchen’s claim that the team can sleep through the night without worry. “My stress is generally low and that’s the case now, and it actually decreases as we get to the platform,” he said. “Then it increases exponentially with the rocket, and I’m looking forward to it.”
For the mission team, the stress won’t necessarily go away after takeoff. The launch is just the first step, one that begins a month-long process of unfolding the intricate telescope as it moves toward a point called L2 on the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. The delicate deployment procedure includes more than 300 steps that must work perfectly for the telescope to finally start operating.
“There are many different ways of looking at complexity, but one way of looking at it is through single point faults that should work,” Zurbuchen said. “If you look at that metric, landing on Mars has about a third of the single-point faults that would fully deploy the telescope.”
However, when a landing on Mars is fully scheduled in advance, takes place in just a few minutes, and must be executed without interference from Earth, most of the JWST deployment is a dynamic process that mission personnel can adjust as required. necessary.
“The whole deployment process is very human-controlled,” Amber Straughn, a Webb project associate scientist for communications at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, said during the news conference. “With the exception of the first couple of deployments just after the spacecraft split, all of our deployments are controlled by humans. We do them one at a time. [and] make sure everything is working properly. “
And the observatory, NASA staff emphasized, is worth it.
“The James Webb Space Telescope is an Apollo moment for all of NASA, for the entire world, but especially for our science programs around the world,” said Zurbuchen. “It is the stuff of dreams.”
Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.
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