NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Fully Fueled for Launch

Editor’s Note, Dec. 8, 2021: This post has been updated with more accurate fueling figures.

In preparation for launch later this month, ground teams have successfully completed the delicate operation of loading the James Webb Space Telescope with the propellant it will use to steer itself while in space.

The James Webb Space Telescope was fueled inside the payload preparation facility at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on Nov. 26, 2021. Credit: © ESA-CNES-Arianespace/Optique video du CSG – P Piron; used with permission

In order to make critical course corrections shortly after launch, to maintain its prescribed orbit nearly 1 million miles from Earth, and to repoint the observatory and manage its momentum during operations, Webb was built with a total of 12 rocket thrusters. These rocket thrusters use either hydrazine fuel or a special mixture of hydrazine fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer.

To safely handle these extremely toxic propellants, Webb was moved to the fueling section of the Ariane payload preparation facility at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. Specialists wore Self-Contained Atmospheric Protective Ensemble, or “SCAPE,” suits while loading the observatory. The nearly 10-day procedure began Nov. 25.

Webb’s spacecraft bus, built by Northrop Grumman, was filled with 369 pounds (168 kilograms) of hydrazine fuel and 292 pounds (133 kilograms) of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. Both fuel and oxidizer will be used together to maximize power for the biggest “burns” by Webb’s Secondary Combustion Augmented Thrusters, which are for mid-course corrections and inserting into L2 orbit, as well as for orbit maintenance around L2 during the mission. However, hydrazine alone will be used for the small “burns” by Webb’s tiny precision Monopropellant Reaction Engine thrusters, which are used for large-angle repointing and for managing spacecraft momentum. The fuel loading system was formally disconnected Dec. 3, followed by inspections and closeouts that concluded over the weekend.

Combined operations between the Arianespace and NASA teams preparing Webb and its Ariane 5 rocket are now set to begin. The next large milestones for the joint teams will be to move Webb to the Bâtiment d’Assemblage Final (BAF), or Final Assembly Building; place it atop its rocket; and encapsulate it inside its protective fairing. With final closeouts complete, the full stack of rocket and payload atop its mobile launch platform will be rolled out of the BAF to the launch pad, two days before its scheduled Dec. 22 launch.

By Thaddeus Cesari, Webb science writer, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Progress for Webb at the Launch Site

On Wednesday, Nov. 17, NASA Headquarters held its final review for the mission prior to launch. A week later, on Nov. 24, a review committee approved Webb’s transition to the next stage in its preparations for launch. This week we’ve asked NASA’s Randy Kimble, Webb’s integration, test, and commissioning project scientist, to tell us how things are going at the launch site:

“The loading of propellants into the Webb observatory is complete at the Arianespace launch facilities in Kourou, French Guiana. This is an important step in the path toward launch.

“The vast majority of the launch energy required to send Webb to its operating orbit around the Sun-Earth Lagrange point L2 will be provided by the massive Ariane 5 rocket. Nevertheless, the observatory carries propellants of its own. After being released from the launcher, Webb will use its own system of small rocket thrusters to fine-tune its approach to its final halo orbit around the L2 point (illustrated below), where the telescope and instruments will cool in the shade of the enormous sunshield, protected from the heat of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. Mid-Course Correction maneuvers for refining the trajectory are planned (nominally) for 12.5 hours and 2.5 days after launch, with a third one month later, to ease Webb into its L2 orbit. Those same thrusters will be used periodically throughout the mission to maintain that orbit, with small maneuvers called ‘station keeping.’

Webb orbit
Credit: NASA

“A second set of smaller thrusters on the observatory compensate for momentum buildup caused by the pressure of solar radiation onto the large area of the sunshield. Although Webb is designed to keep that pressure well balanced, angular momentum builds up as the telescope points at different targets, so occasional, small momentum-unloading maneuvers are required to keep the observatory’s reaction wheels within their proper operating ranges. Reaction wheels are flywheels in the Webb spacecraft that help keep the payload’s orientation stable.

“Propellant loading was the final major operation for the observatory itself, before it moves to the Final Assembly Building (BAF is the French acronym) for integration with the Ariane 5 launch vehicle.

“One special aspect of processing the Webb observatory at the launch site is the need to keep it clean. Unlike Hubble, whose telescope is enclosed in a protective tube, Webb can operate successfully with just the shade of the sunshield to protect it in space. While it is subject to the air on Earth, the environment around the telescope must be kept as clean as possible. This ensures that Webb’s mirrors and sunshield are not contaminated with small particulates or molecular films, both of which could reduce the observatory’s sensitivity. The NASA, ESA (European Space Agency), Arianespace, and French space agency (Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) teams have cooperated very closely to custom-clean the launch facilities to Webb’s demanding requirements. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has also provided portable HEPA filter walls to augment the contamination control of the airflow near the payload. Goddard contamination engineers Eve Wooldridge and Alan Abeel have reported excellent results from the joint contamination control efforts for the roughly seven weeks Webb has been in Kourou so far. They note that continued vigilance is required for the remainder of the ground processing flow, as the most challenging facilities are still ahead.

“From Eve and Alan, ‘Our NASA contamination control engineers and technicians have transformed facilities that are not designed for scientific spacecraft into well-controlled clean rooms not just with HEPA filters, but by covering, cleaning, removing, bagging, and sealing over items incompatible with Webb’s stringent cleanliness requirements, and then cleaning every surface daily.’ The launch site facilities that Webb has encountered so far have all performed well, thanks to these efforts. The next challenge is to transform the facilities in the BAF (which opens huge doors for the rockets and spacecraft), where Webb will be integrated with the rocket and then encapsulated. This can be done because of the excellent team Eve and Alan are so fortunate to work with. ‘We maintain that this is not just the largest contamination control team in the world doing this type of work; it is the best and most hard-working. They have cheerfully worked long days, six days a week, and have proven to be a strong morale-booster for the entire launch campaign team. While we all look forward to launching Webb and getting home to our families, we know we will miss each other and this amazing time in Kourou very much.’

Webb in the clean room at Europe's Spaceport. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn.
Webb in the clean room at Europe’s Spaceport. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

“As Webb prepares to move to the final steps of ground integration, there are no more planned major ground tests of the payload – only minimal electrical checks. The Comprehensive Systems Test that was performed in late October to confirm the observatory’s health after arriving at the launch site represented the culmination of many years of testing. The successful completion of that major ground test put members of the Webb team who had traveled to Kourou in a reflective mood:

“Macarena Garcia Marin, ESA’s instrument and calibration scientist for Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), noted with pride the ‘can-do’ attitude and the wonderful feeling of camaraderie among the team that was required to get through years of often-grueling test campaigns. She was also thrilled by the opportunity to see a ‘sneak preview’ of the Webb launch, having viewed the most recent Ariane 5 launch (VA255, on October 23) from a distance of three miles away – ‘Breathtaking!’

“Scott Lambros, Webb instrument systems manager at Goddard, reported mixed feelings as ground testing of the observatory drew to a close: ‘Strangely enough, it’s sad to see the observatory going away – we’ve been working with it so long now, it’s like saying goodbye to a friend. It’s also sad that many of the wonderful people I’ve been working with in the last 19 years soon will be going in different directions. On the other hand, I am extremely excited to see Webb ready for launch and prepared to fulfill its scientific purpose out at L2.’

“As are we all.”

—Randy Kimble, Webb integration, test, and commissioning project scientist, Goddard

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

Webb Team Members Take a Moment to Express Gratitude

As we approach the launch of our incredible mission, we asked people across the mission to share why they are grateful for Webb.

I am thankful for…

“the wonderful engineers, project leaders, and skilled technicians who crafted the amazing Webb machine that will enable us to fulfill our science vision!”

—Heidi B. Hammel, Webb interdisciplinary scientist, Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA)

“having had the chance of taking part in a piece of history. It will be certainly the most complex and ambitious program I will collaborate with in my lifetime scientifically and technically, but also, and maybe more importantly, the most rewarding as a person with human relationships built over the long journey with all the colleagues and friends in the JWST project.”

—Jose Lorenzo Alvarez, former MIRI payload manager, ESA (European Space Agency)

“the incredible opportunity to work on an engineering marvel and a piece of history. The mentors I’ve had along the way and being part of an amazing team of people.”

—Yi Wang, Webb launch systems integration engineer, Northrop Grumman

“the JWST project recognizing planetary science as an essential science priority and working to enable moving target tracking so we can observe solar system objects.”

—Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

“being able to meet people from around the world and talk to them about the promise and anticipated discoveries of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

—Peter Sooy, outreach and communications specialist, ASRC Federal System Solutions

“the people I’ve been working with during cooler integration and test and will be working with during commissioning the cooler after launch.”

—Bret Naylor, MIRI cooler commissioning lead, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory

“the team leaders who have taught me so much. I am thankful to have met and become friends with so many folks. I pray for the team members who are no longer with us. We all played an important part of making James Webb a success.”

—Shirley Paul, quality assurance engineer, Genesis Engineering Solutions

“the opportunity to be part of a project so big, that it’s literally ‘out of this world.’ I couldn’t have imagined one day working alongside incredible people, for a NASA mission, and that I—with my small part on social media—would be part of this group.”

—Jaclyn Barrientes, senior social media specialist, Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI)

“being part of the JWST project and having seen time and again how people from all over the world get together and work collaboratively to overcome any challenge, from engineering or scientific problems to a world pandemic—always finding new solutions to push through and complete the mission!”

—Giovanna Giardino, instrument scientist, ESA

“being hired for this job just a year before JWST launch—it was a dream come true as I had been waiting for an opportunity to be part of JWST ever since I saw JWST mirrors at [Goddard] about seven years ago when I was just a master’s student.”

—Nimisha Kumari, ESA/AURA astronomer, STScI

“the two decades of camaraderie, friendship, dedication, and perseverance shared with the JWST family bringing the dream of this great observatory to reality.”

—John Johnston, OTIS deputy systems engineer, Goddard

“being part of a mission that I’m sure will change the way we understand the universe. I feel certain we are in for some surprises!  I’m also thankful for getting to work with some amazing people on this telescope over the years.”

—Amber Straughn, deputy project scientist for communications, Goddard

“everyone who showed up every day and gave J-Dub their all each and every day. We sacrificed a lot of weekends and long days over the years. There aren’t many other jobs where you will work on something for so long and not know you did a good job until a later moment in time. But I do know we gave it our all and left everything out there on the field (clean room). And that’s all you can do.”

—Colin Burt, mission systems engineering—sunshield, Heliospace

“my families, both home and NASA, for their years of support over the life of this mission.”

—Eric Smith, Webb program scientist, NASA Headquarters

From our Webb family to yours…happy Thanksgiving!

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

Testing Confirms Webb Telescope on Track for Targeted Dec. 22 Launch

Engineering teams have completed additional testing confirming NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is ready for flight, and launch preparations are resuming toward Webb’s target launch date of Wednesday, Dec. 22, at 7:20 a.m. EST.

Additional testing was conducted this week to ensure the observatory’s health following an incident that occurred when the release of a clamp band caused a vibration throughout the observatory.

On Wednesday, Nov. 24, engineering teams completed these tests, and a NASA-led anomaly review board concluded no observatory components were damaged in the incident. A “consent to fuel” review was held, and NASA gave approval to begin fueling the observatory. Fueling operations will begin Thursday, Nov. 25, and will take about 10 days.

The Webb Space Telescope is an international partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. It will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, and everything in between. Webb will reveal new and unexpected discoveries, and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

NASA Provides Update on Webb Telescope Launch

The launch readiness date for the James Webb Space Telescope is moving to no earlier than Dec. 22 to allow for additional testing of the observatory, following a recent incident that occurred during Webb’s launch preparations.

The incident occurred during operations at the satellite preparation facility in Kourou, French Guiana, performed under Arianespace overall responsibility. Technicians were preparing to attach Webb to the launch vehicle adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory with the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket. A sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band – which secures Webb to the launch vehicle adapter – caused a vibration throughout the observatory.

A NASA-led anomaly review board was immediately convened to investigate and instituted additional testing to determine with certainty the incident did not damage any components. NASA and its mission partners will provide an update when the testing is completed at the end of this week.

Webb was previously scheduled to launch Dec. 18 on an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou.

The Webb Space Telescope is an international partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. It will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, and everything in between. Webb will reveal new and unexpected discoveries, and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

Webb’s FGS and NIRISS Instrument Are Ready for Launch

We continue to explore Webb’s instrumentation this week, highlighting the Canadian contributions to the mission. As you’ll see, the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument is ideally suited for studying two of Webb’s scientific themes. Scientists will use NIRISS to take advantage of the natural phenomenon of the atmospheric transmission of transiting exoplanets and the gravitational lensing of galaxy clusters, to help us learn more about these intriguing objects. René Doyon, scientific lead for NIRISS, and his colleagues help us understand NIRISS’s capabilities:

“NIRISS is one of two contributions to the Webb mission from the Canadian Space Agency and other Canadian partners. Its development over two decades has been full of twists and turns, but we are very proud with the instrument that resulted from all our work!

Canada's Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Canada’s Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. (Credit: NASA)

“NIRISS is coupled with Webb’s Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) within a single module about the size of your average washing machine. FGS is one of several of Webb’s mission-critical sub-systems whose function is to keep the observatory aimed at its target with exquisite accuracy to enable the sharpest possible images. FGS will be capable of detecting a tiny angular displacement of the telescope equivalent to the thickness of a human hair as seen from one kilometer away. NIRISS is a scientific instrument with several observing modes that will allow astronomers to study a multitude of different types of celestial targets to reach many of Webb’s scientific objectives.

“With incredibly high-precision spectroscopy, NIRISS will study the chemical composition of the atmospheres of exoplanets, searching for conditions that may be favorable for life. As the light from a distant star passes through the tenuous atmosphere of its transiting exoplanet, a very small fraction of the light is absorbed by atoms and molecules. This “molecular fingerprint” of the atmosphere tells us about the gases and atmospheric conditions on these alien worlds.

“In another observing mode, NIRISS will capture the spectra of over a thousand galaxies in one shot to map extremely faint and distant galaxies as they appeared shortly after the big bang. When they were first formed a few hundred million years after the start of the universe, these galaxies shone very brightly in ultraviolet and blue light. As their light travelled across an expanding universe, it was stretched and redshifted into infrared light, making a near-infrared instrument like NIRISS the perfect tool to study the nature of these very early galaxies.

“NIRISS will also use a clever technique called Aperture Masking Interferometry to directly image celestial objects that are very close together in the sky. Solar systems being born, brown dwarfs, and exoplanets very close to their parent stars will be captured by the instrument to better understand how these objects form and evolve over time.

“NIRISS, along with Webb’s other scientific instruments, will truly open a new window on the cosmos and unfold the universe as we have never seen it before. After many, many years of imagining, developing, constructing, testing, and waiting, NIRISS and FGS are ready for launch! On behalf of the Canadian Space Agency, Honeywell Aerospace, the National Research Council of Canada, the Université de Montréal, and the entire NIRISS science team, we cannot overstate how excited we are for this milestone moment to finally be here!”

—René Doyon, Nathalie Ouellette (Université de Montréal), and Chris Willott (NRC-Herzberg)

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

Webb’s NIRSpec Instrument Is Ready for its Ride to Space

As progress continues in Kourou, we check in with another one of Webb’s instruments, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec), and its scientific lead, Pierre Ferruit:

“It was more than 20 years ago that the European Space Agency (ESA) teamed up with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency to build the amazing James Webb Space Telescope! The NIRSpec instrument is one of the four elements contributed by ESA to the Webb mission.

“NIRSpec was designed and built for ESA by a consortium of European industrial companies led by Airbus Defence and Space, Germany, with some components provided by NASA, making it a truly international effort, just like Webb itself!

“Measuring approximately 1.9 m x 1.3 m x 0.7 m, NIRSpec is the largest instrument on board Webb. Yet it weighs less than 220 kg. Built to withstand the tremors of a rocket launch and the rigors of space, it is a marvel of technology and engineering like many things in Webb. Its optical bench and most of its mirrors are made of an extremely hard and stable ceramic material called silicon carbide. European industry has become a master of the craft of manufacturing and using this very special material for building space telescopes and instruments like NIRSpec.

The final taping of the protective cover is applied and the James Webb Space Telescope NIRSpec instrument is in its final flight configuration and ready to go back into the Integrated Science Instrument Module.
Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn
The flight James Webb Space Telescope NIRSpec instrument, undergoing integration.
Credit: Astrium/NIRSpec

“Now, let’s talk a little bit about science with NIRSpec and in particular about ‘spectra.’ A key role of NIRSpec in the Webb mission is to allow scientists to study in greater detail the properties of faint galaxies detected in images such as those from NIRCam. For that, NIRSpec will split the infrared light from these galaxies into different shades of infrared and generate what we call spectra. Analysis of these spectra will tell us how distant these galaxies are, what type of stars they contain, what is the relative abundance of life-giving elements such as oxygen and carbon in their interstellar gas, and much more. Each spectrum is a small treasure trove of information that will help scientists understand how the first stars and galaxies formed when the universe was only a few hundred million years old!

“Since this is only one example of what NIRSpec can do, you will understand how excited we are now that Webb, with NIRSpec cozily installed at the back of the primary mirror, is being prepared for launch. After rigorous tests on Earth, NIRSpec is ready! Go Ariane, go!”

—Pierre Ferruit, ESA Webb project scientist, and the NIRSpec team

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

Webb’s NIRCam Instrument Is Ready for Launch

In Kourou, Webb went through a thorough checkout called the Comprehensive Systems Test (#6). The test included turning on all of the room-temperature electronics and a test of the mirror actuators that will be used to align the mirror segments during commissioning. The tests went very well, and the next time we move the mirrors, they will be in space! The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) plays a critical role in that process, and Marcia Rieke, scientific lead for the instrument at the University of Arizona, shares her look ahead for the next several months:

“The 20-year journey that has taken NIRCam, the near-infrared camera for the James Webb Space Telescope, from a concept to reality will culminate on December 18 with a ride on an Ariane 5 rocket. One of Webb’s major science goals is the detection of the first galaxies to form after the big bang. NIRCam was built with this goal in mind, and the NIRCam team is using much of their observing time to achieve this goal. During the last few years the team has built on Hubble discoveries to simulate what Webb will see. The team can hardly wait to compare the real data to the simulation—which will tell us immediately what the real universe has produced.

Simulation of the NIRCam deep survey images that will be used to search for the first galaxies
Simulation of the NIRCam deep survey images that will be used to search for the first galaxies. Credit: NIRCam instrument team

“The launch will be scary, as rocket launches always are for those who have a delicate instrument atop the rocket, but confidence is very high that the telescope and instruments will reach orbit safely. And NIRCam is critical for what happens in the months after we get there. About 35 days after launch will be needed for NIRCam and the telescope to cool enough to first turn NIRCam on. The excitement will continue to build as NIRCam takes the data used to corral and align the 18 segments of the primary mirror. The segments will be higgledy-piggledy when they are lifted off the mounts used for safe stowage against the launch motions. Modeling the detailed motions of spacecraft parts during launch is essentially impossible, so the NIRCam data will show the engineers where the mirror segments are located. Careful measurement of the 18 star images, the same star seen reflected off each of the mirror segments, will provide the data needed to generate the commands for moving the mirrors into alignment. These data will not be valuable scientifically, but the NIRCam team will be jumping for joy to see them as they will be the first indications that the telescope and NIRCam can work together. After celebrating the first focused star data, the NIRCam team will have to wait several more months before the telescope and cameras are ready to make the observations showing the most distant galaxies. But after 20 years, waiting a few months when one knows that everything is working shouldn’t be too bad.”

—Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the NIRCam instrument and professor of astronomy, University of Arizona

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

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