How Can We Get a Look at the Beginning of Time?

Image credit: ESA

Written: December 30, 2021

The space industry has had a great 2021. A few highlights include amazing feats on the surface of Mars, the blooming of space tourism, and SpaceX’s one-hundredth recovery of Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage boosters. Even more spectacular may turn out to be what took place early on Christmas Day at a spaceport near the Earth’s Equator in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

The countdown to liftoff was a bit different than space launches from Florida or California. Dix, neuf, huit, sept, six, cinq, quatre, trois, deux, un, zéro, décollage! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) sat atop a giant Ariane 5 rocket, a European heavy-lift space launch vehicle developed and operated by Arianespace for the European Space Agency (ESA). The powerful rocket with JWST atop blasted off on a million-mile trip to get a glimpse of the earliest days of the universe. The monumental effort was comprised of a partnership including NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency. Putting the gigantic telescope in orbit around the sun is the biggest and most expensive space-based observatory project ever.

The Webb telescope encapsulated in the nose cone fairing is about the size of a large truck. Its sunshield is 69.5 ft x 46.5 ft, slightly larger than a doubles tennis court or about half as big as a 737 aircraft. The fairing at the top of the Ariane 5 rocket is 56 feet tall and 17.7 feet in diameter. The fairing has room for multiple large satellites but placing a massive observatory like the James Webb Space Telescope inside the fairing is like putting ten pounds in a 5-pound bag. The various parts of the telescope were folded up like an origami project.

Unfolding the telescope will require multiple complicated actions. The entire process will rely on hundreds of different moving parts, including up to 140 release mechanisms, 400 pulleys, 70 hinge assemblies, and 90 cables. Take a look at a short animation video showing how the telescope is planned to unfold.

As of Thursday, December 30, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been in space for five and a half days, 45% of the way toward an orbit around the sun a million miles away. JWST will orbit around L2, a shorthand for the second of five Lagrange Points. Each is a unique location where gravity from the sun and Earth balance the orbital motion of a satellite or, in this case, a space telescope. The riskiest part of the journey to deep space is just beginning. In the days ahead, according to The Verge, the telescope “will initiate an intricately choreographed mechanical dance as it slowly contorts its shape and unfurls, in order to reach its final form.”

The history of the JWST goes back to 1996 when the Next Generation Space Telescope was initiated. In 2002, the project was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, who was the administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968 and played an integral role in the Apollo program. The following year an $824.8 million prime contract for JWST was awarded to TRW. The JWST is expected to cost NASA almost $10 billion over the 24 years of fits and starts. Nine billion dollars were spent on development of an unprecedented engineering feat, and another billion dollars is planned to support five years of operations. In addition to NASA’s investment, the European Space Agency, which provided the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, and the Canadian Space Agency together contributed approximately one billion dollars for various components and science experiments.

After the JWST reaches its million miles from Earth orbit later in January, it will begin a series of calibrations and tests over six months to prepare for full-time scientific operations. The telescope has enough fuel to maintain its halo orbit for at least ten years. The obvious question is what can we expect for the $10 billion investment?

The Hubble Space Telescope, launched into orbit by space shuttle Discovery in 1990, is in orbit 340 miles above Earth. Hubble takes sharp pictures of planets, stars and galaxies and has made more than one million observations. Scientists have learned a lot about the universe from Hubble, but nothing compared to what the JWST will reveal. Scientists and astronomers are extremely excited about the Webb enabling them to see what the universe looked like 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies started to form. For the first time, astronomers will get a look at what can be described as the beginning of time.

2021 was a great year for rocket launches, space travel, and scientific research. 2022 may turn out to be even more amazing. The Washington Post said, “NASA and the growing space industry” continue what “has amounted to a renaissance of exploration”. I will continue to follow space developments and share what I learn.