The Journey to Kourou

Congratulations to Arianespace on last weekend’s launch of two communications satellites into geostationary transfer orbit aboard an Ariane 5. The launch pad is now cleared to receive Webb, which has arrived at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou and has begun preparations for its December launch. To hear more about the journey to French Guiana, and the anticipated-yet-still-surprisingly-emotional reaction it has imparted, here is the mission’s deputy senior project scientist, Jonathan Gardner:

“As I watched the video of the Webb telescope being loaded into the hull of the MN Colibri ship and heading out to sea, I found myself almost in tears. I thought, ‘If I am feeling this emotional now, what will launch be like?’

“I’ve worked on the Webb project since 2002, almost 20 years. At the time that I was first walking my children to kindergarten, I helped to write down the science goals that were used to guide the design of Webb. Now, as my youngest child applies to college, I can read the proposals that were selected for the first year of Webb science. Some of the details have changed, but the themes are the same: distant galaxies, forming stars, and planets. The 13.8-billion-year journey from the primordial material of the big bang to planets with the building blocks of life.

“Webb is a product of the world, with cameras from Europe and Canada, and contributions from most U.S. states. The components of Webb have traveled before; the complex 15-stage journey of the mirrors is now complete. Or, almost complete; Webb still has to make the giant leap into space atop a massive Ariane 5 rocket.

Webb is loaded onto the MN Colibri
Credit: Mike McClare, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“After finishing the decade-long assembly and testing process, Webb was packed into the STTARS transport container. With Webb nestled safe in its cushioned support structure and dry-nitrogen climate-controlled environment, the truck driver reached a maximum speed of 7 miles per hour on the middle-of-the-night journey from a Northrop Grumman clean room to the port at Seal Beach. Leaving on September 26, with Webb loaded into its cargo hold, the MN Colibri sailed along Baja California and reached the Panama Canal.

The MN Colibri passes through the Panama Canal
Credit: The Panama Canal Authority

“Webb took 8 hours to traverse through 3 locks of the Canal and entered the Atlantic Ocean on October 6. After continuing around the South American coast, Webb arrived in Kourou on October 12, and was unloaded amid the palm trees and tropical birds of French Guiana.

In this photo, the James Webb Space Telescope is driven to Guiana Space Centre from the port. It was shipped from California, through the Panama Canal, to French Guiana, where it will launch. The launch vehicle and launch site are part of the European Space Agency's contribution to the mission.
Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace

“Webb has now moved into the Arianespace processing facility. After a few final electrical tests, insulation closeouts, and the critical spacecraft fueling, Webb will be lifted atop an Ariane 5 and launched. A year from now, my child will be starting college and exploring new environments, and so will Webb. Webb will be sending a flood of astronomical data back to Earth – helping us to understand the journey of the universe. Although sometimes there can be tears when one stage of a journey ends and another begins, we are all three ready for the future: my child, myself, and the Webb telescope.”

—Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist

By Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

And Alexandra Lockwood, project scientist for Webb science communications, Space Telescope Science Institute

Introducing the Webb Blog

This is it! It is less than two months until the Webb telescope finally launches, and we couldn’t be more excited. Webb is NASA’s next flagship observatory and a technological marvel, more than twenty years in the making. It has just arrived in Kourou, French Guiana – home to Europe’s Spaceport facility and our upcoming launch site. (More on that next week, including some amazing photos and video footage!)

We are starting a blog to keep you abreast of what is happening during the telescope’s launch and commissioning timeframe. The first science from the observatory won’t be available until next summer, but there are many exciting things along the way. We’ll also use this space to hear firsthand from some of the mission’s top scientists and engineers about the technical processes that are happening, their experiences with the mission, and the exciting discoveries that await us!

To begin, we asked the mission’s senior project scientist and Nobel laureate, John Mather, to reflect upon the mission that will define the next decade of astronomy:

“On behalf of all scientists and all curious people everywhere, thank you to the team who made the Webb telescope possible! It represents decades of work by over 10,000 of us, putting our hearts and minds and fingers together through troubles, nights, weekends, and COVID.

“Now we’re near launch, and everyone wants to know if I’m worried – will it work? My opinion has no effect on the hardware, but we did what it takes to win. We sketched, we argued, we worried, we analyzed, we made a plan, we wrote down everything, we made checklists, we built the parts, we put them together, we tested as though our lives depend on it. We have backup electronic systems for everything where we can. Everyone on the team knows how much this mission matters to the world.

“Our scientific colleagues are ready to go. We’ve decided where we’re going to look for the whole first year of scientific observations. We’ll be hunting for the first objects that grew out of the primordial big bang material, we’ll be looking at distant galaxies to see back in time, we’ll be looking inside dust clouds to see stars and planets being born today, we’ll be looking at planets around other stars to see if they have atmospheres, and we’ll be looking close to home at everything in the solar system from Mars on out.

“But before we do that, we have to set up the equipment. We’ve got an hour-by-hour plan, and it takes 6 months. First, we unfold the observatory by remote command, then we wait for its plastic sunshield to dry out, then we let the telescope cool down, then we focus it, then finally we check out the four instruments. They come from the U.S., Europe, and Canada, and they will make images and spectra, spreading out the light into rainbows that tell us what’s happening inside the stars and galaxies – what’s their chemistry, how hot are they, how are they moving? The data will come back by radio to the computers and scientists around the world. We’ll be asking and trying to answer: Where did we come from? How is life possible here on Earth?

“It will be worth the wait.”

—John Mather, Webb senior project scientist


By Alexandra Lockwood, project scientist for Webb science communications, Space Telescope Science Institute

And Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center