Webb Telescope Launch Livestream and Analysis: Live Updates

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Dec. 25, 2021, 6:17 a.m. ET

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:17 a.m. ETCredit…George Rieke

What do astronomers eat for breakfast on the day that their $10 billion telescope launches into space? Their fingernails.

“You work for years and it all goes up in a puff of smoke,” said Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona, who for 20 years has been working to design and build an ultrasensitive infrared camera that will live aboard the spacecraft.

An informal and totally unscientific survey of randomly chosen astronomers revealed a community sitting on the edges of their seats feeling nervous, proud and grateful for the team that has developed, built and tested the new telescope over the last quarter-century.

“I will almost certainly watch the launch and be terrified the entire time,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of physics and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.

And there is plenty to be anxious about. The Ariane 5 rocket that is carrying the spacecraft has seldom failed to deliver its payloads to orbit. But even if it survives the launch, the telescope will have a long way to go.

Over the following month it will have to execute a series of maneuvers with 344 “single points of failure” in order to unfurl its big golden mirror and deploy five thin layers of a giant plastic sunscreen that will keep the telescope and its instruments in the cold and dark.

But if all those steps succeed, what astronomers see through that telescope could change everything.

“The entire astronomy community, given the broad range of anticipated science returns and discovery potential, has skin in the game” with the telescope, said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale. “We are all intellectually and emotionally invested.”

Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, who won the Nobel Prize in 2020 for her observations of the black hole in the center of our galaxy, said she kept herself sane “by trusting that really smart people have worked really hard to get things right.”

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