Thu. Jan 20th, 2022

In less than three weeks, NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency will finally send the James Webb Space Telescope into orbit. And it’s been a long time coming.

The new observatory has been created as a successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope and will be the largest and most powerful space science telescope ever built by NASA.

The machine consists of a 6.40 m mirror consisting of 18 golden plates. This primary mirror reflects infrared rays to a small mirror, which then directs them to a series of four sensors. These include infrared cameras, near-infrared spectrographs and other infrared-sensitive instruments.

All of this will help the James Webb Telescope observe parts of space that have never been seen before. It will be able to observe infrared light that could trace to the beginning of the universe and could help locate habitable planets in our galaxy. If it all goes according to plan.

This impressive creature is set to launch in space on December 22nd. Once at its orbit more than 1 million miles away from Earth, it will undergo six months of commissioning before it can actually get to work.

This means that when it begins to capture its first images of the cosmos, it will be more than 30 years since its design process began. And that’s a long time.

In that time, the Earth has traveled more than 31,015,277,568 km, and the population of our planet has grown by 2 billion to more than 7 billion people.

But what about in the world of space travel, what breakthroughs have we witnessed in 33 years of space exploration?

1989, Back to where it all began

Photo: NASA / Handout, Getty Images

In 1989, a year before NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope, the US space agency was already thinking about its successor. That year, the Space Telescope Science Institute and NASA held a workshop to begin deciding what options a new space telescope needed.

But that was not all NASA worked on in the late ’80s. After the disaster with the Challenger explosion in 1986, the space agency was back to running regular flights with the space shuttle.

1989 was also the year the first spacecraft flew past Neptune, Voyager 2. It also saw the Soviet Union expand its Mir space station by adding a third module to the floating observatory.

Fun fact, 1989 was also the year Lexus and Infiniti launched at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

1996, The design takes shape

Photo: NASA / Chris Gunn

By the mid-1990s, the design and development of NASA’s next-generation space telescope was well under way. In 1996, a committee concluded that the satellite should be equipped with everything necessary to observe infrared light, and called for the vessel to be equipped with a mirror with a diameter of more than four meters across – which is exactly what The James Webb Telescope now has.

Even then, work was also underway to launch the International Space Station. In fact, the first sections of the station were sent into orbit on November 20, 1998 aboard a Russian proton rocket.

Other milestones in the mid-90s included the first French woman in space, Claudie Haigneré, and the launch of the longest space shuttle mission ever, which clocked in at 17 days, 15 hours and 53 minutes.

It was also the year the Nintendo 64 was released.

2002, What’s in a Name?

Photo: NASA / Handout, Getty Images

In 2002, NASA decided to rename the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after the former NASA administrator.

That year, the agency also launched five space shuttle missions, including one to operate the aging Hubble Space Telescope, which NASA initially thought would only remain in operation until 2005.

Also in 2002, Spider Man was the highest-grossing movie at the U.S. box office, and we were all happily unaware that we would soon be inundated with superhero movies.

2004, construction begins

Photo: NASA / Desiree Stover

Two years later, NASA began designing the James Webb telescope, including the 18 pieces that were to make up its golden primary mirror.

This year also marked a turning point in the space race, as space travel was opened up to private individuals for the first time. In 2004, SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded manned spacecraft to achieve suborbital flight.

2004 was also the year that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, originally exclusively for college students.

2010, the reviews are on their way

Photo: Handout / Handout, Getty Images

More than 20 years after the work on the telescope began, Webb passed a design review to demonstrate that it met all of its scientific and engineering needs.

That year also marked the space station’s 10th anniversary, and it was also the first and only time to date that four women were in space at the same time: Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Dorothy Metcalf-Lindenburger, Stephanie Wilson and Japanese Naoko Yamazaki.

2011, the year after, also witnessed the last space shuttle flight.

2018, finally together

Photo: NASA / MSFC / David Higginbotham

For the first time, all the elements of the James Webb Telescope came together under one roof. All parts were brought together in California after final testing of the telescope’s elements.

With the space shuttle now retired, innovation in aerospace had by this time shifted to the private sector. SpaceX successfully completed the maiden flight of its Falcon Heavy rocket. It was also the year Blue Origin originally hoped to send its first passengers into space. Testing was also underway on Virgin Galactic’s ship, VSS Unity.

Back down on the terra firma, 2018 was also the year in which Saudi Arabia allowed women to drive.

2021, ready for launch

Photo: Joe Raedle / Staff, Getty Images

The James Webb Telescope has now been sent to Kourou in French Guiana prior to its launch into orbit on 22 December.

This has also been a big year for the first in space, as NASA conducted the first motor flight on another planet when its Ingenuity helicopter flew on Mars.

In the land of the super-rich, Blue Origin completed its first manned mission to space with founder Jeff Bezos on board, Richard Branson became the first billionaire to travel near space, and Elon Musk continued to fly astronauts in orbit with craft powered by SpaceX.

That obviously means there is now room for everyone, I think?

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