Scientists sweat over Christmas Day launch of $10bn space telescope decades in the making

A “once in a generation” space telescope, which is the most powerful and expensive ever made, will be finally launched into space on Christmas Day.

However, scientists in the UK and abroad are beginning to get nervous ahead of the landmark launch of the James Webb space telescope, with decades of work relying on a flawless take-off.

It is set to blast off from French Guiana at 12.20pm UK time on Christmas Day atop an Ariane 5 rocket, and it will take about a month before it reaches its final destination.

“If I’m perfectly honest, I’ll probably be eating Christmas dinner while we’re watching it, biting my nails,” said Martin Barstow, a professor of astrophysics and space science at the University of Leicester, who was involved with building the telescope.

“I’m excited, but frightened about it too. There’s always that nervousness when you see 20-plus years of planning, building and development on top of basically what is a giant firework,” he said.

Leaving no stone unturned

The telescope is loaded into the Ariane 5 rocket ahead of take-off

Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace/Optique Vidéo du CSG – S. Martin

Paul Eccleston, the chief engineer at RAL Space – who helped design and build Miri (mid-infrared instrument), one of Webb’s four primary instruments – told The Telegraph that it is a “once in a generation” telescope and every possible bad outcome has been repeatedly tested.

“Every little hiccup has to be addressed and tested, like, a million times,” Dr Aayush Saxena, a research fellow in extragalatic astronomy at University College London, who will be using the telescope, told The Telegraph.

“Hopefully, everything should go as planned. But there is a lot of margin for error for things to go wrong. If you’ve delayed it by over a decade or so, I would hope that these things have been taken into account.”

The telescope was named after a former Nasa boss who oversaw most of the Apollo programme in the Sixties and the six-tonne spacecraft has so far cost more than $10 billion (£7.5 billion).

High stakes for a sky-high finish

An artist’s impression of how the telescope will be sent into space

Credit: ESA/D Ducros Handout/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The long overdue mission has been in the pipeline for almost 30 years and has been besieged by innumerable delays, snags and blown budgets. However, it is finally set to take up its role as the world’s premier science telescope as a long-overdue upgrade to the Hubble Space Telescope.

It will also tell people more about the formation of galaxies, including the Milky Way, how the first stars were formed, how black holes are created, and what exoplanets may support alien life.

Prof Barstow said: “We will learn about the origins of the universe and how life came about and possibly, although we can’t guarantee, about other life in our galaxy as well.”

The stakes are high, and a lot is resting on a smooth take-off.

Among the many technological hurdles is the unfurling of a tennis court-sized sunshield and a giant game of origami as 18 gold-plated mirrors that total 21ft in diameter need to seamlessly unfold and align next to each other. Nasa itself has said there are more than 300 ways in which the mission could fail.

NASA James Webb Telescope – 1 The Mission

NASA James Webb Telescope – 2 Where it goes and Unfolding

NASA James Webb Telescope – 3 Seeing Infrared

This level of jeopardy is one of the reasons that the launch of the James Webb telescope has been frequently delayed, due to a battery of tests being repeatedly carried out.

Prof Mark Cropper, an astrophysicist at University College London, started working on the Webb mission in 1997 and delivered NIRSpec, another Webb instrument, to Nasa almost a decade ago.

He is set to retire in the next year or two, and may never get to work with data collected by the instrument he helped make.

“I will absolutely be watching the launch,” he told The Telegraph. “I worked on it for 13 years and it’s occupied a lot of my energy. It is a part of our lives and we’ve got to know a whole lot of people. It seems like old history now because we delivered it 10 years ago, but actually, now that it’s all real, I definitely want to feel part of it.”

James Webb was the crescendo of a decorated career for Prof Cropper. But for younger researchers, the data it will produce will be the bedrock of their futures. There is a lot at risk, with all the proverbial eggs in one $10 billion basket, strapped inside a 171ft rocket.

‘If launch doesn’t work, I might go back to the drawing board’

Researchers such as Dr Saxena have their future professional hopes and dreams pinned on Webb. For them, the Christmas Day launch will be particularly nerve-wracking.

“It might sound like a joke, but if James Webb doesn’t work, I don’t know whether or not I will have a career in astronomy because so much of my science is hinged on James Webb now!” he told The Telegraph.

“All the science questions that I’m currently tackling rely on James Webb flying. So if it fails, then I might have to go back to the drawing board and find some other question which gets me excited – which will be a monumental task, I imagine.”

He added: “I’m sure it will work. I refuse to think otherwise. I think the launch is probably the easiest part of the entire process because Ariane 5 is a very reliable rocket.

“The sheer complexity of all of the other moving parts having to deploy within the first week will be pretty terrifying and that’s something that we can’t actively monitor.

“We’re going to have to wait for the signals to come back and tell us that everything is actually on track. I think the first month is going to be absolutely nerve-wracking.”

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