NASA Clears Webb Telescope for Launch Next Month
It’s been a long and winding road for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), but all the forms are filled and the checks are complete — NASA has cleared the $10 billion telescope for launch following a minor mishap during launch prep last week. NASA now says everything is fine, and Webb will go up on December 22, just a few days later than previously planned. Hopefully, this is the last delay Webb experiences.
NASA has been working on the Webb Telescope for more than 20 years. While planning Webb in the late 1990s, NASA expected to spend about half a billion dollars on the mission. The spacecraft was much more challenging to build than expected, though. NASA and its international partners only finished working on the hardware earlier this year. It was shipped to the European Space Agency’s spaceport in French Guiana several weeks back.
We had a bit of a scare last week when NASA pushed the launch date back from December 18th to the 22nd, giving the team time to investigate a minor mishap. According to NASA, a clamp band released unexpectedly while the telescope was being mounted to the second stage of the Ariane 5 rocket. This caused a strong vibration to course through the instrument.
While it’s designed to withstand the vibration of launch, NASA was not taking any chances with a $10 billion payload. There are some 350 single-point failures in the Webb deployment procedure, and it’ll all take place millions of miles away, where rescue missions are not possible.
After a full recheck of Webb’s systems, NASA has now given the green light to begin final launch preparations. Technicians began fueling the spacecraft with 42 gallons (159 liters) of hydrazine and 21 gallons (79.5 liters) of dinitrogen tetroxide late last week. The spacecraft will travel out past the moon to take up residence at the L2 Lagrange Point where it will remain for its entire operational life, using its 20 built-in thrusters for attitude control.
It’s still possible the December 22nd launch could be pushed back due to weather or rocket issues, but the telescope itself is as ready as NASA can make it. Following the launch, Webb will take several weeks to reach L2, during which time it will undergo 50 deployment steps for the folded primary mirror. With its much larger surface area and higher sensitivity to infrared light, astronomers expect Webb to be a capable replacement for the aging Hubble Space Telescope.