The Incredible Story of NASA’s Construction of the $10 Billion James Webb Telescope

Everyone is excited about the seemingly endless potential of the James Webb Space Telescope as it explores the unseen depths of the universe, examines the viability of alien worlds, and more.

But it wasn’t built in space.

Before Webb could take his rightful place in orbit around the second Lagrange point (L2), he had to be shipped to his European Space Agency launch pad in Kourou, French Guiana – from the A Northrop Grumman cleanroom. , in Redondo Beach, California.

It’s a journey of 5,800 miles and a journey where at any moment the James Webb Space Telescope could be irreversibly destroyed in transit. Luckily for us, the $10 billion instrument survived the trip, but it was no easy undertaking, according to NASA.

Webb in transit, loaded onto a ship. Credit: Mike McClare/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

NASA moved the James Webb Space Telescope to a ‘dry nitrogen climate-controlled environment’

The James Webb Space Telescope was not built in one facility, one state, or even one country. “Webb is a product of the world, with cameras from Europe and Canada, and contributions from most U.S. states,” Jonathan Gardner, deputy principal scientist for the Webb project, says on the NASA blog. At the time of his comments in October 2021, Webb was in transit to Kourou and its final launch point, but the new satellite parts had been moved before.

“Webb’s components have traveled before; the complex 15-step journey of mirrors,” for example, Gardner explains. “After completing the decade-long assembly and testing process, Webb was packed into the STARRS shipping container.

With Webb nestled safely in his padded support structure and dry nitrogen air-conditioned environment, the truck driver reached a top speed of 7 miles per hour on the middle of the night drive from a Northrop clean room. Grumman at the port of Seal Plage.”

Webb Panama
Webb going through the Panama Canal. Source: Panama Canal Authority / NASA

Webb crossed the Panama Canal in 8 hours

The James Webb Space Telescope was a fragile set – perhaps the most delicate in history (although it may be difficult to quantify this statement). That’s why NASA took every precaution to ensure Webb wouldn’t get a scratch on his journey, from excruciatingly slow speeds to extra padding, dry nitrogen climate control and probably a bit of luck. . After the 7-mile-per-hour ride, Webb was loaded into his cargo hold and then departed, September 26, 2021.

Then, “the MN Colibri sailed along Baja California and reached the Panama Canal,” says Gardner. “Webb took eight hours to pass through three canal locks and entered the Atlantic Ocean on October 6.” This was a crucial part of his journey because, on the high seas, more unpredictable events can occur.

ESA CNES Arianespace
Webb arriving at the Arianespace processing facility. Source: ESA / CNES / Arianespace

From NASA to Kourou, Webb’s early life foreshadowed greatness

“After continuing up the South American coast, Webb arrived in Kourou on October 12 [2021] and was unloaded amid the palm trees and tropical birds of French Guiana,” Gardner explains in the NASA post. Upon arrival at the Arianespace processing facility, Webb still had to endure a handful of last-minute electrical tests, isolation shutdowns, and spacecraft refueling. .

End of the beginning – The James Webb Space Telescope lifted off atop an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25, 2021 and reached L2 on January 24, less than a month later. Its main challenges in space are related to activating its parts, unfolding into its final form, and synchronizing the mirrors of its gold-crusted mirrors. But it’s important to note that the journey to the launch pad – even for NASA’s flagship missions – can be just as laboriously tenuous.

“As I watched the video of the Webb Telescope loaded into the hull of the MN Colibri ship and heading out to sea, I found myself almost in tears,” Gardner explains in NASA’s post about Webb’s trip. We can be sure to expect similar moments as the new telescope array reveals unimagined new wonders about the universe.

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