For the last almost 30 years, scope-heads have eagerly anticipated the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
And tomorrow, sometime around 7:20am ET, the largest and most powerful telescope to ever leave Earth will begin its million-mile journey into deep space from its launch site in French Guiana.
Its space plans: While its older brother Hubble mainly captured images in visible light, Webb was designed to take photos in infrared light. This means it can cut through space dust and gas to capture much older, never-before-seen stars and planets—and in doing so, could potentially see back to the beginning of the universe.
The specs: The telescope is three stories tall with a gold-plated mirror that stretches 21 feet wide. Its tennis court-sized sunshield will keep the telescope cozy at -370 degrees Fahrenheit, NPR reports.
More delays than Spirit
Although it was originally conceived as a $1–$3.5 billion project, the now $10 billion Webb telescope has suffered so many setbacks that some astronomers weren’t sure it would ever launch. NASA’s initial expected launch date was somewhere between 2007 and 2011, but in 2011 the House of Representatives voted to end the project. Bullish on the telescope’s potential to revolutionize astronomy, the scientific community rallied until the deep space dreams were brought back to life.
There’s also been pushback around the telescope’s name. Critics pointed out that James Webb, the former NASA administrator that the telescope is named for, allowed government discrimination against gay and lesbian employees to take place while he was in charge.
After NASA finished an internal investigation this year, it said it had decided against changing the name.
Big picture: There’s a lot riding on the Webb telescope. One in every three dollars spent on astrophysics at NASA in the last 20 years has gone to building this thing—and if something goes wrong (like, say, during its incredibly complicated unfolding process), the agency could have spent the last three decades building a multibillion-dollar pile of space debris.