The most anticipated space telescope ever is about to launch. It will give us a clear picture of the first stars and reveal the atmospheres of exoplanets too – if it unfolds without a hitch
8 December 2021
IN EARLY October, a cargo ship steered to starboard, leaving the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of South America and entering the muddy waters of the Korou river. It was the final phase of the voyage and no effort had been spared to protect the prized item on board. It was housed inside a specially designed case to keep it safe from the pitch and roll of the waves. The river had been dredged to ensure the ship didn’t get stuck in the shallows. Even the exact date of the voyage had been kept secret, to avoid the attention of pirates.
The precious cargo was the James Webb Space Telescope, perhaps the most hotly anticipated scientific instrument ever. Known as the JWST, the telescope has been more than 25 years in the making and its launch has been delayed countless times. But it has now completed its voyage to the launch site in French Guiana and, if all goes smoothly, it will finally leave Earth in late December. “I still haven’t wrapped my head around it,” says Torsten Böker, deputy project scientist for the JWST at the European Space Agency (ESA). “It seems a little bit unreal.”
Unreal not only because it has often looked like the telescope might never take off, but also because this device is designed to be a time machine that will help us see back to the enigmatic era of the universe’s first stars, which we know precious little about. Unreal, too, …