NASA officials have announced that engineers have merged both halves of the $9.7 billion James Webb Space Telescope, which is due for launch in March 2021.
Webb project manager Bill Ochs, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in an official statement, “The assembly of the telescope and its scientific instruments, sun shield and the spacecraft into one observatory represents an incredible achievement by the entire Webb team. This milestone symbolizes the efforts of thousands of dedicated individuals for over more than 20 years across NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency, Northrop Grumman and the rest of our industrial and academic partners”.
The James Webb Space Telescope has been billed by NASA as the successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope. The recent effort was completed at the Redondo Beach, California, facilities of Northrop Grumman, who is the prime contractor for this project. Engineers gently lowered the telescope element consisting of the optical and scientific gear using a crane, onto the spacecraft body. Webb’s composite, foldable sun shield, which is designed to cool the telescope’s instruments during operation, was already connected to the spacecraft segment.
NASA officials described that the team then connected the two halves mechanically. Technicians still have to make the electrical connections between the pieces and then test them.
The assembly milestone was a long overdue as the Webb Space Telescope mission has undergone a series of delays and cost overruns. Since 2009, the project’s expenditure has almost doubled, and its scheduled launch date has been pushed back by almost seven years.
But all the hard work and struggle involved will be worth the telescope’s great scientific potential according to NASA. The powerful telescope is optimized to view the universe in infrared light and allow astronomers to explore some of the biggest cosmic queries once it is operational at the sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable point in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.
Researchers intend to use the observatory to hunt for signs of life in the atmospheres of neighboring alien planets, and to observe the formation of the universe’s first stars and galaxies about 13.5 billion years ago.
Gregory Robinson, the Webb program director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., shared in the same statement, “This is an exciting time to now sees all Webb’s parts finally joined together into a single observatory for the very first time. The engineering team has accomplished a huge step forward, and soon we will be able to see incredible new views of our amazing universe.”