How the James Webb Space Telescope began its voyage to the edge of time - Beyond The World
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How the James Webb Space Telescope began its voyage to the edge of time

The launch of the world’s largest and most advanced space telescope required a massive protective container, a trip through the Panama Canal, and a great deal of meticulous planning.

The 18 gold-coated mirrors on NASA’s $10 billion James Webb space telescope (JWST), the world’s largest and most powerful technology of its kind, are currently being aligned. JWST was launched just before Christmas and will soon usher in a new era in space research, allowing scientists to study the most distant planets in great detail and investigate the origins of the universe.

The delivery of JWST, which weighs over 7 tons and is a million miles from Earth, was a massive undertaking. Only the Ariane 5 rocket has the power to lift such a massive payload, but even Ariane is too small to contain it. So the huge telescope had to be folded up to fit in, thus making a very complicated telescope even more so.

A long journey to launch

JWST had to be packed into a massive protective container called STTARS before it could be launched (Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea). STTARS is 110 feet long and 18 feet tall and weighs 168,00 pounds. The temperature and humidity inside the container are controlled by a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system, and trailers with pressurized bottles provide clean, dry air.

The journey from JWST’s birthplace in California to the launch site began on the road. At 5 or 10 miles per hour, the precious cargo approached the port of Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. Before leaving, the NASA team checked route surveys, potholes that needed to be filled, and traffic lights that needed to be lifted using satellite imagery. Charlie Diaz, the launch site operations manager, told the agency, “There are just thousands of different things that go on behind the scenes: pulling permits, avoiding obstructions, selecting alternate routes… all kinds of nuances.”

STTARS was loaded onto a cargo transport ship at the Naval Weapons Station and shipped to French Guiana, a country on the north Atlantic coast of South America that contains the European Space Agency’s Primary Launch Site. The telescope traveled 5,800 miles by sea from Panama to Port de Pariacabo in French Guiana, then by road to the launch site.

When the time came to launch, it was a nerve-wracking experience. “The Ariane 5 rocket is very reliable, but no rocket is 100 percent perfect,” Martin Barstow, an astrophysics and space science professor at England’s University of Leicester, told reporters. “There’s always that nervousness when you see 20-plus years of planning, building, and development on top of basically what is a giant firework.”

Blasting off

The Ariane was launched at 7:25 a.m. EST on Christmas Day, “from a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself,” as one commentator put it. After two minutes, the rocket had reached a speed of nearly 5,000 miles per hour. Sections of the rocket were jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean after the fuel ran out. The nose cone was no longer required to make the Ariane aerodynamic once it was 80 miles above the Earth’s surface and thus outside our atmosphere. To save weight, this piece was split into two halves and discarded.

The only remaining part of the Ariane rocket, the small upper stage engine, took over the job of carrying the JWST 25 minutes into the flight and burned one ton of fuel per minute for 15 minutes to increase the speed to 21,400 mph. The JWST then detached from the upper engine and set out on its own.

The JWST reached its final position and synchronized with the Earth’s orbit around the sun after much anticipation. The combined gravitational pull of the sun and the Earth will keep the telescope from careening into space at this location. This location has numerous advantages; for example, it is far enough away from us to provide a clear view of the universe while still being close enough to communicate with Earth. The tennis court-sized sunshield will provide the telescope with five layers of protection and keep it at a cool, steady temperature by preventing heat and light from sources such as the sun, Earth, and moon (sort of like an umbrella).

The world watched as JWST arrived at its observation post with a spectacular view of the Universe after a flawless ride into orbit. “This is a great day not only for American, European, and Canadian partners, but it’s a great day for planet Earth,” NASA’s chief administrator Bill Nelson said at the time.

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