Sat. May 28th, 2022

The artist's impression of the James Webb space telescope in space.
Enlarge / The artist’s impression of the James Webb space telescope in space.

Following a scare last week, officials from NASA and the European Space Agency have said they will continue preparations for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. The $ 10 billion instrument is scheduled to be launched on a European-built Ariane 5 rocket by December 22nd.

NASA said engineers have conducted additional tests to make sure the telescope is ready to fly, and refueling began on November 25th. The telescope has 20 small maneuvers for maneuvering and will be filled with about 240 liters of hydrazine fuel and nitrous oxide oxidant. The filling process will take about 10 days.

The decision to go ahead with the Webb Telescope’s launch countdown counts as good news after a somewhat worrying announcement a week ago. On November 22, NASA said it would delay the space telescope’s planned launch by a few days to investigate an “anomaly” during treatment operations at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

“Technicians were preparing to attach Webb to the launcher adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory with the top step of the Ariane 5 rocket,” NASA said in a blog post. “A sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band – which attaches Webb to the launcher adapter – caused a vibration throughout the observatory.”

The problem occurred earlier this month, and NASA convened an anomaly review board to investigate and perform further testing. After these tests, engineers concluded that the observatory had not been damaged by the vibrations from the release of the clamping tape.

However, the long-awaited launch of the space telescope is only the beginning of the path for Webb to begin scientific operations. Its launch late this year will kick off a nerve-wracking holiday season for NASA leaders and scientists hoping to use the powerful telescope to look back and see some of the earliest galaxies forming in the universe.

After launch, Webb will travel about 1.5 million km from Earth to the L2 Lagrange point behind the Moon. There it will be able to hold a stable position without spending much on board propulsion. Along the way, and once there, about 50 insertions of the large, folded telescope will be needed to prepare scientific observations.

This process will involve almost 350 single point errors and if something goes wrong it will degrade the implementation with no hope of repair.

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