NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is 100% assembled

The observatory will now be used to hunt for signs of life in the atmospheres of nearby alien planets and to study the galactic evolution

Photo: NASA The fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope with its sunshield and “unitized pallet structures” (which fold up around the telescope for launch).

Following more than two decades of design and construction, engineers have now finally put the last remaining pieces in place for NASA’s next generation orbiting observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope. Built to succeed Hubble as NASA’s premier space telescope, the now-complete instrument will take our space exploration capabilities to whole new levels, with the sensitivity to spot a single firefly a million kilometers away.

The James Webb Space Telescope is set to become the largest, most powerful and complex orbital observatory ever fired into space. With seven times the light-collecting capacity of Hubble and advanced infrared imaging abilities, scientists hope to gain fresh perspectives on distant celestial objects, including those that died out long ago.

The idea of putting a dedicated space telescope in orbit to collect observations in the infrared spectrum first emerged in the mid 1990s, and the James Webb Space Telescope has suffered a string of setbacks in the time since. A lot of these were caused by technical issues unearthed in testing, with the telescope originally slated for launch in 2007. So today’s assembly is a huge milestone for the engineers and technicians that have been tinkering away all that time. The team used a crane to combine two halves of the giant telescope at a Northrop Grumman facility in California for the first time ever, slotting its mirrors and science instruments into place above the already-constructed sunshield and spacecraft components.
“The assembly of the telescope and its scientific instruments, sunshield and the spacecraft into one observatory represents an incredible achievement by the entire Webb team,” says Bill Ochs, Webb project manager for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This milestone symbolises 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 telescope may now be fully assembled but there is a lot of work to do before the team launches it into space. Better that technical problems are uncovered here on Earth than 1.5 million km away, the altitude at which the telescope will eventually orbit, so the exhaustive testing continues with the team to deploy the telescope' complex five-layer heat shield and make sure it takes the correct shape. The team will also put the observatory through extra environmental and deployment testing, with launch slated for 2021.

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