It’s finally getting real for the James Webb Space Telescope. Engineers are now preparing the long-awaited groundbreaking telescope for transport to its launch site at the European spaceport in French Guiana.
“NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has reached a major turning point on its path to launch with the final integration and testing of the observatory,” said Gregory Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA headquarters. “We have a hugely dedicated workforce that has brought us to the finish line and we are delighted that Webb is ready to take off and will soon be embarking on this scientific journey.”
Final tests of the space telescope were conducted at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in California to ensure that the complex, foldable observatory in space was performing as planned. The packaging and shipping operations have now begun, with precise steps required to ensure a safe journey along the California coast through the Panama Canal to French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.
“We are pleased that all tests for Webb have been completed and thank all teams for their excellent work,” said Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, in a press release. “We are very pleased that all the items necessary for the launch are now coming together at Europe’s spaceport.”
During transportation operations, teams at Webb’s Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore will continue to run simulations for the launch and operation of the telescope. Recently, the team reviewed the operations center and network and fully demonstrated that it was able to seamlessly send commands to the spacecraft. Now the team will focus on conducting launch rehearsals to prepare for all sorts of contingencies of things that could go wrong during launch and separation from the Ariane 5 launcher – but hopefully the right way.
Completing this test marks the team’s completion on a long series of checkpoints designed to ensure Webb’s 18 hexagonal mirrors are prepared for a long life of profound discovery. Credits: NASA / Chris Gunn
As we reported earlier this year, the normally reliable Ariane 5 struggled on two earlier launches in 2020 that experienced unexpected vehicle accelerations as the fairing separated from the rocket. The fairing is the nose cone used to protect a spacecraft’s payload during launch and acceleration through Earth’s atmosphere.
Arianespace officials said the source of the problem has been found and corrective action has been taken. In fact, an Ariane 5 successfully launched two commercial communications satellites on July 30, 2021, the rocket’s first flight in almost a year and the first of two planned missions before Webb can be sent into space on its mission.
The next Ariane 5 launch is scheduled for a number of satellites (the SES-17 and Syracuse-4A satellites) in September at the earliest and, if successful, the launch for James Webb may follow, probably no earlier than late November. NASA, ESA and Arianespace have not given a planned launch window and, for security reasons, have not announced exactly when Webb will begin its trip to South America. However, below is an infographic with all of the steps required to get started:
Timeline of the Webb launch at the European spaceport. Photo credit: ESA.
The upper stage of Ariane 5, which Webb will bring into space, is already on its way to the European spaceport.
After launch and a 26-minute drive into orbit, the spacecraft disconnects from the rocket and its solar array is automatically deployed. If all goes well, the spacecraft will fly to the second Lagrange point, or L2, where it actually orbits the sun 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. This orbit allows the telescope to stay in line with the earth as it moves around the sun, and allows the satellite’s large sun visor to protect the telescope from the light and heat of the sun and earth (and moon) . It takes about 30 days to reach L2. It will take approximately six months to deploy and test the entire telescope, with several nail-biting events going smoothly, including opening the sun visor and mirror and setting up the antenna so that all of the data can be sent back to Earth. Webb will go through an action-packed six month commissioning phase. Moments after a 26-minute ride aboard the Ariane 5 launcher.
Cover caption: With integration and testing officially completed for the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next big leap into the cosmic unknown will begin soon.Credits: NASA / Chris Gunn
Sources: ESA, NASA