JWST Launches Tomorrow! (Screams Internally)

Disclosure: I am a NASA postdoc. However, all opinions are my own.

Hi, everyone. Just a PSA that the James Webb Space Telescope lifts off tomorrow morning from French Guiana. (Yes, on Christmas Day.) The launch is at 7:20 AM Eastern time (12:20 UTC), and live coverage will begin on NASA TV at 6 AM.

This is NASA’s newest giant space mission, which has been built as a successor to Hubble (even though Hubble is still kicking). JWST will look back closer to the Big Bang, get a better look at planets than ever before, and a bunch of other cool science, too.

And we really, really need this to go off without a hitch.

I’ll just refer you to this Slate article for why astronomers like me are totally freaking out about this. Seriously, this thing is 14 years behind schedule and costs 10 times the original budget estimate. It feels like it’s already set astronomy back 10 years by getting so bogged down. Now, that’s probably uncharitable; a lot of the problems stemmed from getting a totally unrealistic sales pitch when it was first proposed. But still, there are a lot of things that can go wrong and very few options to fix them if they do. Maybe Elon Musk could get someone out there within 5 years to service it, but it’s not really designed to be serviced to start with. This needs to work on the first try.

And yes, the designers and engineers have done great work, and they’ve tested and retested everything (I think something like a year of the delays were for testing reasons), and I have the utmost respect for them…but there are still tens of thousands of person-years of future work that are riding on a mission that is three times as complicated as the Mars Perseverance rover at the start of the year.

So, yeah, I think the astronomy community has good reason to be nervous. If you’re a praying person, this one is (sort of) traditional:

“Dear Lord, please don’t let us %$*& up!” —Pseudo-Alan Shepard

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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