As $10 billion James Webb telescope preps for launch, scientists are excited – and nervous

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UPDATE: The launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope has been pushed back one day to Christmas morning because of weather concerns at the launch site in French Guiana. The new launch window opens up at 7:20 a.m. ET.

The numbers are staggering: Ten billion dollars. Twenty-five years of design and development. The ability to see billions of years into the past.

But there’s also this figure: 344. That’s how many potential “points of failure” there are, any one of which could doom the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA scientists and officials have for decades anticipated this space-based observatory, seen as successor to the famous Hubble, and the discoveries it could bring as it peers even deeper into the universe’s multibillion-year-old story.

But they are equally nervous about the precision required for its success.

Despite not even being at its eventual million-mile orbital distance from Earth, the telescope has already seen its fair share of challenges: delays caused by hardware hiccups like loose screws, work pauses due to its sheer complexity, the coronavirus pandemic, and general cost overruns leading to multiple federal investigations.

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But the results its 18 gold-plated hexagonal tiles promise to help deliver could be staggering in scope – and bring a burst of public excitement not seen since the famous Hubble Deep Field that captured thousands of galaxies in a single image.

“I am almost as nervous about this launch as I was for my own launch 36 years ago,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, who flew on a space shuttle mission, told FLORIDA TODAY.

If schedules hold, Webb will start its 10-year mission on Christmas Eve. A European Ariane 5 rocket is slated to launch the 13,000-pound telescope from French Guiana, located just north of Brazil, at 7:20 a.m. ET.

Points of failure

After liftoff, Webb will spend nearly a month running through post-launch checkouts and unfurling maneuvers. The three agencies responsible for the telescope – NASA, European Space Agency, and Canadian Space Agency – call it “29 days on the edge.”

According to the Space Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for space activities and conducts studies, there are 22 active space telescopes operated by more than a dozen countries. Webb, however, will need to differentiate itself from those by executing the most complex set of deployment maneuvers ever attempted.

The roughly $10 billion telescope has to be folded and stowed to exact specifications in Ariane 5’s payload fairing, survive the vibrations of launch, then spend 29 days unfurling into a sunflower-like telescope with a massive 72-foot sunshield below.

“There are 344 single-point failure items on this observatory,” said Mike Menzel, NASA’s lead systems engineer for Webb, noting that 80% of them are during that period of unfolding from its launch configuration.

Hundreds of parts will be responsible for unfolding, each one of which has to work perfectly in sequence.

“Unfolding Webb is hands-down the most complicated spacecraft activity we’ve ever done,” Menzel said. “Then again, nothing about Webb is easy. We’ve never done any of this before.”

The Northrop Grumman-built telescope’s activities will need to follow a strict schedule of powering up, deploying the many components, and firing thrusters to reach its final destination about a million miles from Earth.

“We performed multiple deployment testing over several years on both small and full-size models,” Krystal Puga, a spacecraft systems engineer at Northrop Grumman, said during a pre-launch conference. “We practiced not only deployment but the stowing process. This gives us the confidence that Webb is going to deploy successfully in orbit.”

If something goes wrong during any of those processes, Webb will be on its own for now. As it stands, there are no companies or countries capable of launching a servicing mission to fix Webb in its orbit well beyond the moon. Missions like those launched in the 1990s to repair Hubble won’t be possible for at least several years – assuming officials agree to fix it in the first place.

Webb’s promises

A full-scale mockup of the James Webb Space Telescope is seen at the 2013 South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas.

Webb’s 21-foot gold-coated mirror is the star of the show, but the Lockheed Martin-built Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, is what will enable scientists to peer through cosmic debris and dust clouds using the infrared spectrum.

Overall, the telescope is touted as being roughly 100 times more powerful than Hubble.

“This telescope is so powerful that if you were a bumble bee hovering 240,000 miles away, which is the distance from the Earth to the moon, we would be able to see you,” said John Mather, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

But what specifically do scientists want with such a powerful telescope unencumbered by Earth’s volatile atmosphere and light pollution? To look at everything there is to see.

“We want to know how we got here from the Big Bang,” Mather said. “So we’ll look. We have ideas, we have predictions, but we don’t honestly know.”

From the Big Bang to the formation of galaxies to our solar system and life itself, Mather said the universe’s 13.8 billion-year-long story is nowhere near being told. Webb’s infrared imager means scientists can peer not only farther than ever before, but also deep into clouds of gas and dust that eventually give birth to stars.

“Dark areas of dust are obscuring our view of those earliest times when the stars are growing. But we can see them with infrared. Infrared light will go around the dust grains instead of bouncing off,” Mather said. “It’s one of our top goals to see how stars grow with their young planets.”

All in all, some 10,000 people have worked to make Webb possible. Some started early on and have since moved onto other careers or fields; others have stayed with the program throughout.

“We’re about to go on this amazing journey of discovery and we really mean discovery because Webb has this broad power to reveal the unexpected,” said Project Scientist Klaus Pontoppidan, noting that Hubble’s discoveries created entirely new fields of study. “We think Webb will be no different.”

“Webb will probably also reveal new questions for future generations of scientists to answer, some of whom may not even be born yet.”

Contact Emre Kelly at [email protected] or 321-242-3715. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram at @EmreKelly.

Post-launch timeline:

  • T-plus 31 minutes: Solar arrays deploy to begin delivering power
  • T-plus 12.5 hours: Fire thrusters to begin trek toward final orbit
  • T-plus three days: Sunshield frame begins to deploy
  • T-plus four days: Tower will extend to separate mirrors and instruments
  • T-plus five days: The five-layer sunshield begins to deploy; process includes 107 release mechanisms on its own
  • T-plus 10 days: Telescope deployment
  • T-plus 12 days: Primary mirror is deployed
  • T-plus 13 days: Primary mirror components are locked
  • T-plus 15 days: 10-day process to align all 18 mirrors into precise positions using 126 actuators
  • T-plus day 29: Fire thrusters again to reach Lagrange Point 2, or L2, about a million miles from Earth

Launch Friday, Dec. 24

  • Rocket: Arianespace Ariane 5
  • Mission: James Webb Space Telescope
  • Launch Time: 7:20 a.m. ET
  • Launch Location: Europe’s Spaceport, French Guiana

Visit floridatoday.com/space at 6 a.m. Dec. 25 to watch the launch live.

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