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The 10-billion-dollar Christmas Gift

If all goes well, space enthusiasts from around the world will be watching a nail-biting event on the 22nd of December at 12:20 GMT as one of the most expensive space assets ever will be launched into space: the James Webb Space Telescope. We’ve all read about this future space telescope thirty years in the making and its primary scientific mission which will be to observe the light from the very first stars to appear in our universe around 13.5 billion years ago.

Since these stars are very faint, JWST will operate a massive 6.5-metre primary mirror in the infrared (which detects very cold objects) and require a tennis-court wide sunshield. In addition to these distant stars, the telescope will be busy observing pretty much everything else in our cosmos from faint galaxies to small planetary bodies in our Solar System. There is even hope that it might be able to characterize the atmosphere of exoplanets with incredible detail!

So, how do you plan to launch a 10-billion-dollar space telescope and still be able to sleep at night? You use one of the most reliable space launchers ever built: the Ariane V. The European Space Agency’s workhorse was designed in the mid-eighties and early nineties with the first flight occurring in 1996. Like most first launches, it ended in failure with the rocket self-destroying itself 37 seconds after launch. Teething problems continued to plague the program but once it entered maturity, Ariane V proved to be a remarkable success with 83 consecutive missions without failure from 2003 until 2017, with only one partial failure occurring in January 2018 and no new issues since. The success rate of the Ariane V is currently at 95.5% making it one of the safest launchers (the Soyuz-U rocket has a success rate of 97.3%). Yet, despite these figures, we all know that space is uncompromising. Anything can happen.

At the launch of JWST, I will most likely be squeezing a sofa cushion to vent off some stress in front of the TV and will hope that Santa comes early this year to bring us one the most amazing Christmas gifts ever. Where will you be?

Merry Christmas to all.


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