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NASA launching powerful new telescope to explore dark corners of space

In this 2017 photo made available by NASA, technicians lift the mirror assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.  AP

Story at a glance

  • The James Webb Space Telescope successfully finished fueling up last week and is expected to launch from French Guiana on Dec. 22.
  • A $10 billion telescope, Webb is the most powerful telescope ever constructed.
  • Scientists expect Webb to remain in space for at least five to 10 years, providing groundbreaking information to astronomers all over the world.

One of the world’s most powerful telescopes ever constructed is one step closer to being launched into space, where scientists at NASA hope it will solve mysteries in the solar system by looking beyond distant worlds and stars to learn about the origins of our universe and much more. 

The James Webb Space Telescope finished fueling up at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, last week and now engineers are tasked with the Final Assembly Building, where the scope will be carefully placed atop its rocket.  

If all goes to plan, the telescope will launch into space on Dec. 22, and its mission will be no less than five to 12 years. Scientists hope it will have a lifetime greater than 10 years, but it depends on the amount of fuel it uses and if it maintains proper functioning in orbit. 

According to NASA, the telescope will soar 1 million miles from Earth, with 12 rocket thrusters attached to it. The telescope is unique in design, attached to 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors that emulate a honeycomb and allow the scope to see infrared light with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity. Each mirror segment can unfold and adjust to shape after launch.


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The scope also features a tennis-court-sized, five-layer sunshield that serves to reduce the impact of heat from the sun by more than a million times. 

The launch of Webb is a long time coming, as development of the scope began back in 1996 and it’s viewed as the successor for NASA’s Hubble telescope, which initially launched to space in 1990. Hubble was designed to be periodically serviced by astronauts in space, and its mission was to spend at least 15 years probing the deepest parts of the cosmos. 

Hubble has managed to continue much longer than that, operating and observing space for more than 30 years.

Now the time has come for Webb to take on space observation duties, and scientists intend for it to become the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. 

Webb’s mission will be to search for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang and determine how galaxies evolved from their initial formation to the present day. The telescope is also expected to observe the formation of stars from their first stages to their eventual formation to planets. 

Webb will also measure the physical and chemical properties of planets to investigate the potential for life.

Once Webb launches on Dec. 22, it will take about a month for the scope to reach Earth’s orbit. Upon arrival, it will take another six months for engineers to confirm if Webb unfolded correctly and if all of its instruments are working correctly. At that point if all things check out, Webb’s mission will begin.

Webb is worth nearly $10 billion and has experienced a series of delays, serving as NASA’s most complex science mission. Webb is an international collaboration between NASA, who shares the overall responsibility of Webb’s mission, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. 


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