NASA finally finishes construction of the James Webb Space Telescope

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NASA has officially announced that the decades-long construction of the $9.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope is finally complete and is ready for launch.

The space agency announced as all the elements that make up the James Webb Space Telescope have been brought together for the first time.

“The assembly of the telescope and its scientific instruments, sun shield and the spacecraft into one observatory represents an incredible achievement by the entire Webb team,” Webb project manager Bill Ochs, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

“This milestone symbolizes the efforts of thousands of dedicated individuals for over more than 20 years across NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, Northrop Grumman and the rest of our industrial and academic partners,” Ochs added.

The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sun shield at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Redondo Beach, California
Source: NASA | Chris Gunn

The recent work took place at the Redondo Beach, California, facilities of Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for Webb.

There are considerably three main parts – a telescope, which involves its respective mirrors and other cosmos-scoping instruments; a sun shield that will provide shade to its sensitive view of the sky; and a spacecraft unit that will manage the observatory’s day-to-day operations in orbit.

Separately, all three components have undergone vigorous and repeated testing. Now, that all three have been bolted together, NASA will now continue to test them at the integrated level.

Notably, scientists and engineers need to assure that the vital sun shield of the Webb will unfurl completely and successfully without kinks and tears, to ensure that it will protect the telescope from any potential stray light coming from the sun.

Notably, however, this assembly has taken quite a while as the Webb Space Telescope mission has endured a series of delays and cost overruns. Development began in 1996 for a launch that was initially planned for 2007, but its intensive testing required for a redesign in 2005 only further delaying the project.

A decade ago in 2009, for example, the project’s price tag has almost doubled, massively going over-budget. The cost after build, launch and five years of operations is estimated to be about $10 billion.

Nevertheless, NASA says that the long wait and high price tag will be worth it once it gets approval to launch in space at the latest tentative date of March 2021.

NASA calls the Webb as the successor to the iconic yet relatively outdated Hubble Space Telescope.

Currently, the Hubble telescope has assisted astronomers for decades, but its results have become limited over time because it is restricted with how deep into space it can see. Therefore, it cannot peer into the past of these incredibly old stars in cosmos.

Comparing it to Webb’s 6.5 meter-wide mirror—which is enough to detect infrared light—Hubble’s 2.4 meter-wide mirror cannot quite collect nearly the same amount of photons and its instruments are also not in tune with Webb’s electromagnetic spectrum to be able to probe the era of first star formation and galaxies – more than 13.5 billion years ago.

With the more powerful Webb, it will allow astronomers to address some of the biggest cosmic questions and peer into the secrets the universe continues to hide such as hunting for signs of life in the atmospheres of nearby alien planets.

Other goals include understanding the formation of stars and planets, and direct imaging of exoplanets and novas. It will do so at the sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable point in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

“This is an exciting time to now see all Webb’s parts finally joined together into a single observatory for the very first time,” Gregory Robinson, the Webb program director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in the same statement. “The engineering team has accomplished a huge step forward, and soon, we will be able to see incredible new views of our amazing universe.”

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