Are we there yet? The next-generation James Webb Space Telescope — the powerful successor to the famous (and famously old) Hubble Space Telescope — has finally completed testing and is now ready to be packed up and shipped to its launch site. That’s a big checkmark on the to-do list for the much-delayed observatory.
On Thursday, NASA announced the completion of testing, saying, “Webb’s many tests and checkpoints were designed to ensure that the world’s most complex space science observatory will operate as designed once in space.”
James Webb is a joint project from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It’s designed to probe the mysteries of our universe’s origins and peer into the past to learn about the formation of stars, planets and galaxies.
The telescope has been put through its paces while safely on the ground. In May, it opened its golden mirror for the last time on Earth. At one point, NASA had hoped to launch the telescope in 2007, so it’s been a long road to reach the end of testing here in 2021.
Preparations for shipping the observatory will wrap up in September. It will need to travel from its current digs at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in California, through the Panama Canal and all the way to French Guiana in South America. James Webb is scheduled to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket this fall, perhaps as soon as Oct. 31.
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The telescope packs up like origami and will unfold itself in space as it travels to its orbital location, almost a million miles from Earth. Science operations will kick off about six months after launch if all goes as planned.
ESA calls Webb “the next great space science observatory,” and it can’t come soon enough. The venerable Hubble Space Telescope has remarkably survived all kinds of technical problems, but it’s over 31 years old. It’s time for some new blood to step up.
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