NASA's $10 Billion Successor to Hubble Telescope Ready to Launch, Head 1 Million Miles Out

The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch Friday, traveling to a spot 1 million miles away where it will look for signs of alien life and will attempt to look back in time 13.7 billion years.

In a mission by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope will launch from the coast of French Guiana in South America.

The $10 billion, 7-ton telescope will have to be folded into the nose cone of a rocket. It will then unfold as it heads to its destination. Upon arrival, it is supposed to keep with Earth's orbit around the sun, constantly staying on the planet's nightside.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told the Associated Press that more than 300 parts need to work "perfectly" in order for the mission to be successful.

The heat-sensing Webb telescope will be able to see things the 31-year-old Hubble cannot see. One aspect scientists are excited about is the idea that they will be able to see what the universe looked like 100 million years after the Big Bang.

The Webb is expected to take a month to reach its destination, then another five months to get all of its instruments in order. If all goes according to plan, it will begin to work by the end of June.

James Webb telescope, Ariane 5 rocket
The James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch Friday from French Guiana. In this Saturday, December 11, photo provided by the European Space Agency, the NASA Webb telescope is mounted on top of the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana. M. Pedoussaut/ESA via AP

It will be the biggest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever to leave the planet, elaborate in its design and ambitious in its scope. With a budget of $10 billion, it is the most expensive and also the trickiest, by far, to pull off.

Its infrared eyes will stare down black holes and hunt for alien worlds, scouring atmospheres of planets for water and other possible hints of life.

"That's why it's worth taking risks. That's why it's worth the agony and the sleepless nights," NASA's science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Its light-collecting mirror is the size of several parking spots and its sunshade is the size of a tennis court. Everything needs to be unfolded once the spacecraft is speeding toward its perch 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away.

"We've been waiting a long time for this," said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's planet hunter Sara Seager. "Webb will move our search for life forward, but to find signs of life, we have to be incredibly lucky."

Named after the man who led NASA during the space-trailblazing 1960s, the 7-ton James Webb Space Telescope is 100 times more powerful than Hubble.

To out hustle Hubble, Webb requires a considerably bigger mirror spanning 21 feet (6.5 meters). It also needs a canopy large enough to keep sunshine and even reflections from the Earth and moon off the mirror and science instruments. The shiny, five-layered thin shade stretches 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters), essential for keeping all four instruments in a constant subzero state—around minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 240 degrees Celsius).

The most daunting part of the mission: unfolding Webb's mirror and sunshield following launch and locking them into perfect position. The gold-plated mirror consists of 18 motor-driven segments, each of which must be meticulously aligned so they can focus as one.

NASA has never attempted such a complicated series of steps remotely. Many of the mechanisms have no backup, so the failure of any of 344 such parts could doom the mission.

Hubble had its own debacle following liftoff in 1990. A mirror defect wasn't detected until the first blurry pictures trickled down from orbit. The blunder prompted a series of risky repairs by shuttle astronauts who restored Hubble's sight and transformed the machine into the world's most accomplished—and beloved—observatory.

Webb will be too far away for a rescue mission by NASA and its European and Canadian partners.

To avoid a repeat of the Hubble fiasco, Zurbuchen ordered an overhaul of Webb after joining NASA in 2016, 20 years into its development. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor.

The sunshield ripped during a practice unfurling. Tension cables for the shade had too much slack. Dozens of fasteners fell off in a vibration test. All this and more led to more investigations, more delays and more costs.

The problems continued even after Webb's arrival at the South American launch site in October. A clamp came loose and jolted the telescope. A communication relay between the telescope and rocket malfunctioned.

Now comes the long-awaited liftoff, set for 7:20 a.m. EST on Friday, with fewer spectators expected to travel to French Guiana because of the Christmas Eve timing.

The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore operates Hubble and will also oversee Webb. At least five to 10 years of observing are planned.

"Personally, I think that even with all of the hype, the Webb will still exceed expectations," said the institute's Ori Fox, who will use Webb to study supernovae, or exploded stars. "Many of what are considered Hubble's most inspiring discoveries were not part of the original plan."

His colleague, Christine Chen, who will focus on budding solar systems, finds serendipity "perhaps the most exciting aspect" of Webb. "The universe is more weird and wonderful than astronomers can imagine."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

James Webb Space Telescope
The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which will attempt to look 13.7 billion years into the past and to search for hints of alien life, is set to launch Friday. Above, engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope November 2, 2016, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images