Whew! A major milestone was achieved today in the James Webb Space Telescope’s journey towards launch. After the telescope successfully arrived in French Guiana yesterday after a secretive 16-day ocean journey (with apparently no pirates in sight), today the telescope took a short road trip over land to the ESA’s spaceport in Kourou. JWST is now at the payload processing facility, where staff will start the process of getting the telescope into the Ariane 5 rocket fairing.
Launch is currently scheduled for December 18, 2021 … T-66 days and counting!
JWST was shipped in a specially built French vessel named the MN Colibri, designed to transport aerospace components inside a water-tight chamber the size of a football field. The massive clean air chamber was built so JWST would not be exposed to vibrations, any excessive G forces of acceleration and deceleration, the rolling or pitching on the water due to sea swell or wind, or excessive temperatures.
The 9,300 km (5,800-mile) voyage took Webb from California through the Panama Canal to Port de Pariacabo on the Kourou River in French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.
The space observatory will now begin two months of operational preparations before its launch on an Ariane 5 rocket. After launch, hopefully its next “stop” will be 1.5-million-kilometers (1 million miles) away at the second Lagrange point (L2), after 30 days of travel, which includes the unfolding of the primary mirror and sunshield, as well as turning on all the instruments.
Related: JWST’s 30 Days of Terror
“Webb’s arrival at the launch site is a momentous occasion,” said Gregory Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA Headquarters, in a statement. “We are very excited to finally send the world’s next great observatory into deep space. Webb has crossed the country and traveled by sea. Now it will take its ultimate journey by rocket one million miles from Earth, to capture stunning images of the first galaxies in the early universe that are certain to transform our understanding of our place in the cosmos.”
At the spaceport, engineers will run final checks on the observatory’s systems. Configuring the spacecraft for flight includes loading the propellants on JWST itself, before Webb is mounted on top of the rocket and enclosed in the fairing for launch.
Once operational, Webb will reveal insights about all phases of cosmic history, looking back to the universe’s first stars and galaxies, searching for signs of potential habitability among the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered in recent years, as well as zooming in on objects in our own Solar System.