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Webb Telescope reaches its final destination

The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope successfully fired its thrusters today to put it in position at the destination where it’s expected to probe the mysteries of the universe for years to come.

The nearly five-minute firing at 11 a.m. PT sent JWST into its prescribed orbit around a balance point known as L2, a million miles beyond Earth. It’s a point where the gravitational pulls of the sun and the Earth align to keep spacecraft in a relatively stable position, minimizing the need for course corrections.

Today’s maneuver came 30 days after the telescope’s Christmas launch from the European Arianespace consortium’s spaceport in French Guiana. NASA is playing the lead role in the project, in partnership with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

“Webb, welcome home!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”

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Astronomers rejoice after Webb Telescope unfolds mirror

Two weeks after its Christmas launch, the James Webb Space Telescope finished unwrapping itself today, delighting astronomers in the process.

The deployment of JWST’s 18-segment, 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror marked the end of the riskiest portion of the $10 billion telescope’s mission.

It’s still more than 300,000 miles from its destination, a gravitational balance point known as L2 that’s a million miles from Earth. It still has to fine-tune the orientation of the mirror’s gold-and-beryllium segments, and cool its instruments down to a temperature just a few degrees above absolute zero. But mission controllers at the Space Telescope Science Institute were able to tick off nearly 300 potential points of failure without a hitch.

“We have a fully deployed JWST observatory,” Northrop Grumman’s Paul Reynolds, who led the mission’s deployment operations team, declared during a widely watched webcast.

JWST is designed to be 100 times more sensitive than the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, which is near the end of its longer-than-expected life. Once JWST begins science operations, as early as May, it should bring new revelations about mysteries ranging from the habitability of alien planets, to the nature of black holes and quasars, to the origins of the universe.

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Webb space telescope’s launch makes Christmas merry

The most expensive telescope in the known universe has begun its journey to a vantage point a million miles from Earth with its launch from French Guiana.

Today’s liftoff of an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Space Agency’s South American spaceport, coming at 9:20 a.m. local time (4:20 a.m. PT), was just the first step of what’s expected to be a monthlong trip for NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope.

“Everything fell together on this Christmas Day to send a new present to the world’s astronomers,” NASA launch commentator Rob Navias said.

Flight controllers broke into applause when the telescope separated from the Ariane 5’s second stage. “Go Webb!” range operations manager Jean-Luc Voyer cried.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson noted that the James Webb Space Telescope is designed to look back to an age when the first stars and galaxies formed, more than 13.5 billion years ago.

“It’s a time machine,” Nelson said. “It’s going to take us back to the very beginnings of the universe. We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined.”

JWST is due to settle into a region of space known as the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2, or L2, where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the sun align to help keep spacecraft in a stable position within Earth’s shadow. Along the way, the telescope will have to unfurl its sunshield and its segmented mirror in a process that’s said to have 344 potential single points of failure.

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High hopes are riding on space telescope’s risky launch

The launch of NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope from French Guiana could mark a triumph in a tale that thousands of astronomers have been following for a generation. Or it could result in the deepest tragedy.

Either way, the climax is due to unfold beginning on Christmas morning — making for a plot worthy of a holiday movie.

“I’ve been waiting 23 years for this telescope to launch,” University of Washington astronomer Eric Agol told GeekWire.

Agol has been waiting so long that the focus of his research changed completely during the wait. Back in 1998, when the Next-Generation Space Telescope was still on the drawing boards, he was studying gravitationally lensed quasars.

“I was doing some science at the time with ground-based telescopes and, and specifically the Keck Telescope up in Hawaii,” Agol said. “We were spending half a night looking at distant quasars, and then we calculated that with the James Webb Space Telescope, it would take a few milliseconds to do the same observation.”

Now he’s studying planets beyond our own solar system — with an intense focus on TRAPPIST-1, a potentially habitable planetary system 39 light-years from Earth. It’s a testament to the telescope’s versatility that it promises to have just as dramatic effect on that project.

“James Webb is just going to give phenomenal data on this system of transiting planets,” Agol said. “Each of the transits will yield spectral information if there are any signs of atmospheres in these planets. This is the first time where we have a really good chance of probing atmospheres on potentially Earthlike planets.”

But first, the telescope has to get settled at its location in deep space, a million miles from Earth, at a gravitational balance point known as Sun-Earth L2.

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Cosmic Science

Supersonic flight and suborbital science feel the boom

Boom Supersonic attracts a big-name customer, Virgin Galactic signs up another researcher for a suborbital spaceflight, and new questions are raised about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Get the details on the Web:

United boosts Boom Supersonic

United Airlines says it’s agreed to buy 15 of Boom Supersonic’s faster-than-sound jets once they come onto the market. Colorado-based Boom is gearing up to start flight testing for a subscale prototype of its Overture jet, known as the XB-1. Those tests are slated to open the way for the Overture’s rollout in 2025, first flight in 2026 and the start of commercial air service at speeds of up to Mach 1.7 by 2029. That could cut Seattle-to-Tokyo travel time from 8.5 hours to 4.5 hours.

The deal makes United the first U.S. airline to sign a purchase agreement with Boom, providing a significant boost to the startup. Boom says it now has purchase agreements and options for 70 Overture jets in its order book. But wait, there’s more: The jets will be designed to use a type of sustainable aviation fuel that’s meant to allow for flight operations with net-zero carbon emissions.

Virgin Galactic signs up science star

Virgin Galactic is reserving a suborbital spaceflight on VSS Unity, its SpaceShipTwo rocket plane, for bioastronautics researcher Kellie Gerardi. During her flight, the timing of which hasn’t yet been set, Gerardi will support a bio-monitoring experiment drawn up by Carré Technologies Inc. (Hexoskin) with the support of the Canadian Space Agency, as well as a free-floating fluid configuration experiment.

Gerardi, who’s affiliated with the International Institute for Astronautical Sciences, is also known for TikTok videos and Instagram postings that explore the intersection of her career and her personal life. She joins planetary scientist Alan Stern in holding a reservation for a dedicated research flight on Virgin Galactic. Last month, the company conducted its first 50-mile-high, rocket-powered flight test from its home base at Spaceport America in New Mexico. Commercial service could begin within the coming year.

The latest buzz on the Webb Telescope

NASA is fine-tuning the schedule for this year’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, widely seen as the successor to the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The space agency had been targeting Oct. 31 for launch of the $10 billion observatory from French Guiana, using a European Ariane 5 rocket. But logistical complications are leading NASA to look at launch dates in November or early December.

Another complication has to do with the telescope’s name: NASA’s Paul Hertz is reported as saying at this week’s meeting of a space science advisory committee that the space agency is reviewing the historical record surrounding James Webb, the late NASA administrator after whom the telescope is named. A petition circulating among astronomers has called for a new name because of claims that Webb acquiesced to homophobic policies during the 1950s and 1960s.

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GeekWire

NASA resets Webb Telescope launch for 2021

Webb Space Telescope
The mirror for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope rises from a shop floor at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center during assembly. (NASA Photo)

NASA says the launch of its flagship James Webb Space Telescope is being rescheduled for no earlier than 2021, with its total price tag boosted to $9.66 billion.

That price tag includes a development cost of $8.8 billion, which breaks the $8 billion development cost cap mandated by Congress in 2011. That was the last time the Webb project went through a do-or-die debate.

“Congress will have to reauthorize Webb through this next cycle of authorization,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said today during a teleconference announcing the reset.

NASA officials strongly supported going ahead with the telescope, which is in the latter stages of testing and assembly. The general-purpose telescope is expected to build on the trailblazing observations of the Hubble Space Telescope and provide unprecedented insights about exoplanets and the farthest frontiers of the observable universe.

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Fasteners come loose on Webb Space Telescope

Telescope testing
The James Webb Space Telescope’s spacecraft element undergoes acoustic testing. (NASA Photo / Chris Gunn)

NASA says it’s reviewing its options for repair and corrective action for the multibillion-dollar James Webb Space Telescope after tests shook fastening hardware off the observatory’s sunshield covers.

The issue isn’t expected to force further delays in the Webb Space Telescope’s launch, which was recently postponed to no earlier than May 2020.

Word of the loose hardware surfaced this week when Webb program director Greg Robinson referred to the issue during a presentation to the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, sparking a report in Space News. Robinson was quoted as saying “it’s not terrible news, but it’s not good news, either.”

In today’s follow-up report, NASA said it’s not uncommon for such issues to turn up during pre-launch testing. “This is an example of why space systems are thoroughly and rigorously tested on the ground to uncover imperfections and fix them prior to launch,” Robinson said in the NASA update.

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NASA delays Webb Space Telescope’s liftoff to 2020

James Webb Space Telescope
An artist’s conception shows the James Webb Space Telescope with its five-layered, foldable sunshield. Issues with the sunshield have contributed to launch delays. (NASA Illustration)

NASA is delaying the scheduled launch of its next flagship observatory, the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope, by a year — which may hike its cost so high that Congress will have to OK more money.

Acting agency administrator Robert Lightfoot said that the outlook for additional delays emerged from an internal schedule review, and that a new date for the telescope’s launch on an Ariane 5 rocket would be negotiated with the European Space Agency.

For now, NASA is looking at launch in May 2020, rather than the spring of 2019 as previously planned.

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2018 turns to 2019 for Webb Space Telescope

NASA says it’s moving the launch date for its $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope from October 2018 to the spring of 2019, citing a longer-than-expected process of integrating elements of the house-sized spacecraft. The latest delay for the oft-postponed launch was announced Sept. 28 after a routine schedule assessment.

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All systems go for testing Webb Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope
Engineers conduct a white-light inspection on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. (Credit: Chris Gunn / NASA)

After years of busted budgets and stretched timelines, NASA says its $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is ready for testing and on track for launch in 2018.

The telescope, seen as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is designed to capture images of the first galaxies ever formed and provide unprecedented data about planets circling distant stars.

“Today, we’re celebrating the fact that our telescope is finished, and we’re about to prove that it works,” Nobel-winning astrophysicist John Mather, the telescope’s senior project scientist, told reporters at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland today.

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