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Table of contents

It will also help reveal information about atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, and perhaps even find signs of the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe. Now that the telescope segment is finished, NASA must show that its marvel of engineering can survive launch aboard one of the world's most powerful rockets, then in the harsh environment of space.

The space agency has already shaken, chilled, and rattled a lot of JWST's individual components. However, it needs to see if they'll hold up when they're all assembled.

So NASA will now subject the entire mirror segment to punishing conditions in labs all over the country in the coming months. Rockets vibrate like crazy as they blast off, so shaking is one key test. Workers in finished building a house-size table to throttle the telescope, called the Large Vibration Test System , at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland — and that's where they're testing the mirror segment right now.

The forces will exceed 10 times gravity's pull. Called the Acoustic Test Chamber , it's 42 feet tall and has 6-foot-wide speaker horns that will blast out decibels of sound for 2 minutes at a time. For comparison, a clap of thunder at sea level is about decibels, while eardrums burst close to decibels. If the mirror passes those tests, it will fly aboard a giant jet and to Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Engineers will reward the spacecraft by sticking it into a giant cryogenic vacuum chamber , suck out all the air, and let it sit there — freezing at blisteringly cold temperatures — for 90 days.

This will simulate what it's like for the mirror to sit completely in the dark of its sunshield some , miles away from Earth more on this in a moment. By August , NASA hopes to ship the mirror to Northrop Grumman's facility in Los Angeles, where workers will attach it to the sunshield and bus, finally completing the telescope.

JWST will launch from French Guiana because the Earth's spin there is more than 1, mph, thanks to a significant bulge near the equator. The launch facility is only miles north of it.

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For similar reasons, this is why almost all US rocket launches happen in the south; it requires less fuel to get into orbit. Ideally they'll launch it in October Assuming the launch goes off without a hitch — the Ariane 5's safety record has been flawless over 74 missions since — JWST will begin a day journey to a point that's four times farther away than the moon is from Earth. While it flies there, it will gently unfurl its sunshield and instruments over the course of two weeks.

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