Astronomers Nervously Counting Down to Christmas Eve Launch of $10B Webb Telescope

"What do astronomers eat for breakfast on the day that their $10 billion telescope launches into space?" asks the New York Times. "Their fingernails." The worst-case scenario is "You work for years and it all goes up in a puff of smoke," they're told by Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona: Dr. Rieke admits her fingers will be crossed on the morning of December 24 when she tunes in for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. For 20 years, she has been working to design and build an ultrasensitive infrared camera that will live aboard the spacecraft. The Webb is the vaunted bigger and more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers expect that it will pierce a dark curtain of ignorance and supposition about the early days of the universe, and allow them to snoop on nearby exoplanets. After $10 billion and years of delays, the telescope is finally scheduled to lift off from a European launch site in French Guiana on its way to a point a million miles on the other side of the moon... [T]here is plenty to be anxious about. The Ariane 5 rocket that is carrying the spacecraft has seldom failed to deliver its payloads to orbit. But even if it survives the launch, the telescope will have a long way to go. Over the following month it will have to execute a series of maneuvers with 344 "single points of failure" in order to unfurl its big golden mirror and deploy five thin layers of a giant plastic sunscreen that will keep the telescope and its instruments in the cold and dark. Engineers and astronomers call this interval six months of high anxiety because there is no prospect of any human or robotic intervention or rescue should something go wrong. But if all those steps succeed, what astronomers see through that telescope could change everything. They hope to spot the first stars and galaxies emerging from the primordial fog when the universe was only 100 million years or so old, in short the first steps out of the big bang toward the cozy light show we inhabit today. Tod Lauer, an astronomer at NOIRLab in Tucson, Arizona, remembers the launch of the original Hubble Space Telescope — and told the Times that astronomers had to trust their colleagues in rocket and spacecraft engineering to get it right. "Someone who knows how to fly a $10 billion spacecraft on a precision trajectory is not going to be impressed by an astronomer, who never took an engineering course in his life, cowering behind his laptop watching the launch," Dr. Lauer said. "You feel admiration and empathy for those people, and try to act worthy of the incredible gift that they are bringing to world." On Friday the manufacturer of the rocket carrying the teescope tweeted an update. "Target launch date is December 24 at 12:20 am UTC," and confirmed it again on Saturday...

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