SPACE – Failure is not an option. While the James Webb Space Telescope has taken off from the European Space Center in Kourou, it is still too early to claim victory. As you can see in the video above, no less than 344 failures listed by NASA indeed threaten the mission. These hundreds of potential dangers justified the multiple delays in launching the largest telescope ever to be sent into space.
With its 6.5 tonnes, its sun visor the size of a tennis court and its fold-out mirror measuring more than 6 meters in diameter, this origami-built space telescope is already a technical feat. The mission was developed for a budget of around $ 10 billion.
Billed as the successor to the Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will explore all phases of the cosmos with unparalleled precision, down to the early ages of the Universe and the formation of the first galaxies. “The scientific ambition is to send the largest telescope possible into space. The larger it is, the further one can look into the universe, as well as the details in the images observed, ”exhibits Olivier Berné, CNRS researcher at the Institute for Research in Astrophysics and Planetology at HuffPost.
But before we get to that, James Webb will have to start by fully deploying. The fear for the scientific community would be that one of these chains would crash, potentially rendering the total mission inoperative. Especially since the orbit targeted by JWST is located 1.5 million km from Earth. So saving the telescope once in orbit would be “a new technological achievement”. Almost unimaginable.
“In general, in space, we don’t like mechanisms,” Olivier Berné recalls. There are certain sequences which mean that if you have a mechanism that does not work, they endanger the following ones ”. And on this mission, it starts 28 minutes after the telescope takes off. What NASA has called “the most complex deployment sequence ever attempted in a single space mission” will open.
And if one of the links does stop, the whole chain could in turn become blocked. Of the anticipated “344 point of failure”, approximately 80% are associated with deployment. This will last for the first two weeks of the mission, while the ship travels to its orbit point.
It must be said that the JWST will be the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space. It therefore had to be folded in order to integrate it into the Arianne 5 rocket, which was responsible for launching it into space.
There are 144 critical events to pass for the mission to be fully deployed. For example, “if the heat shield does not deploy at all, then it becomes quite critical” alerts Olivier Berné. The heat shield is responsible for cooling the space telescope. Without it, “it will be difficult to get down to a temperature low enough to be able to function optimally. This would mean that a large part of the instruments will not be able to work fully, if at all ”.
One of the most important mechanisms is that of the secondary mirror, which must reflect the light. “There, if you don’t have the secondary mirror unfolding, you can’t just observe. It would be extremely critical ”.
On some mechanics there are some uncertainties since everything is new, and nothing like it has ever been done before. “In projects like this, so ambitious, you have to take risks. We cannot advance in the knowledge of our Universe without taking a minimum of risk ”, justifies the CNRS researcher.
Although James Webb is touted as the “big brother” of the Hubble telescope, its launch “has nothing to do with it,” says Olivier Berné. “Unlike Hubble, which had undergone an insufficient amount of testing, Webb has really been optimized. Everything has been tested. There, on Earth, it works perfectly, ”he adds.
Indeed, NASA has taken maximum precautions not to reproduce an error like the one made on Hubble. We remember the failure of the beginnings of the telescope launched in 1990, which became fully operational three years later. His main mirror was flawed and condemned Hubble to blindness. It was then necessary to send a space shuttle to correct the problem.
The very great complexity of the new JWST telescope, the means put in place for its construction and the considerable importance of its missions explain the many delays in its launch. Many times postponed, it was originally scheduled for 2007.
“One of the latest delays is a good illustration of the precautions they are taking. A clamp, which holds Webb to the launch vehicle adapter (used to insert the observatory into the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket) broke and so it made the telescope vibrate, ”says Olivier Berné. Additional tests were therefore required to “determine with certainty that the incident did not damage any of the components,” NASA added.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s target launch date is moving from Dec. 18 to no earlier than Dec. 22 to allow for additional testing, following an incident during launch preparations that caused a vibration throughout the observatory. More details: https://t.co/ALRUp69nsT. pic.twitter.com/QL3P1AssTK
The orbit that Webb is targeting has little to do with Hubble’s, either. The latter operates 575 km from Earth, while its successor will move 1.5 million km from our planet. Unlike Hubble, it will therefore be much more difficult to organize a rescue operation.
“Such a mission seems a priori very unlikely but not impossible. If you had to think about it, it would be a robotic mission and certainly unmanned, comments the scientist. You do landers on asteroids a lot, so that’s something you’d imagine. Especially since it is a very expensive instrument ”.
Indeed, after having resolved the technical feasibility of the mission, economic questions arise. Clearly, “knowing if the mission would cost more or less than rebuilding an instrument” asks the astrophysicist. But we can also hope that all goes well for James Webb.
Also on The HuffPost: James Webb, the space telescope that goes back to the earliest ages of the Universe
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