The Most Exciting Spot in the Cosmos Right Now Is French Guiana

Posted by on December 23, 2021 11:21 am
Categories: Everything Else

KOUROU, French Guiana—One of the first things that the project manager of the world’s most powerful space telescope wanted to show me was the sloth.

Bill Ochs, a longtime manager at NASA, had already seen the animal a few times, hanging out in a strip of rich-green jungle, across the street from a hotel. “You see this kind of weird-looking tree right here?” Ochs said, pulling the car over. And there was the sloth, motionless on a high branch, nearly hidden, with only a patch of gray, wiry fur peeking through the leaves.

Ochs does photography in his spare time, and although he enjoys bird-watching in the wildlife refuge near his home in Maryland, he is not here, thousands of miles away in French Guiana, for the local wildlife. Ochs is here for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, years in the making.

So are hundreds, even thousands, of others from NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, which are working together on the project. Employees from Arianespace, the European launch company providing the rocket, are here too, and everyone is working alongside the local staff at the Guiana Space Center, the spaceport from which the observatory will lift off. There’s no exact count, but it’s a lot of people, all focused on the safe departure of a telescope that, when it opens its mirrors toward the cosmos, will see farther than Hubble. This is a mission that will peer deep into the universe and capture the light from the first stars and galaxies. A machine that is traveling so far into space that astronauts won’t be able to repair it. So all of these people know they had better get this part right.

The Webb project has recently experienced a few final schedule delays, thanks to a mix of technical problems and weather constraints. As of now, launch is planned for the morning of December 25. Scientists around the world had organized in-person watch parties, but many have recently been called off because of the fast-moving Omicron variant. Kourou, the home of the spaceport, might have been even more packed with space folks if so many hadn’t canceled at the last minute, because of the coronavirus, the new schedule, or both. The people who did make the trip are now committed to this spot, and they won’t leave until the telescope does. On Christmas Day, there may be more people fixated on this historic mission here than anywhere else on the planet.

“I’m 100 percent confident that we’ve done everything we can to maximize the probability of success,” Ochs told me. “But that doesn’t mean you don’t get nervous.”

The Webb observatory was assembled in the United States and, too large to fit on an airplane, sailed by ship to French Guiana, a French territory on the northeastern coast of South America. Technicians have been preparing the observatory for launch ever since. The spaceport, managed by the European Space Agency and CNES, France’s space agency, opened in 1968. Here, a few hundred miles north of the equator, rockets have an easier time sending their payloads into orbit, stealing a bit of momentum from Earth’s spin. The spaceport has dispatched a variety of cargo over the years, including communications satellites, a Mercury-bound probe, and now a $10 billion space telescope.

Kourou is a small coastal town of about 25,000. Mango and palm trees line the streets. Daytime is punctuated by the squeaky chirps of the bananaquit, a small black-winged bird with a yellow belly, and nighttime, at least where I’m sleeping, with the chanting of frogs. The Webb-focused signs about “seeing farther” and “pushing technology,” attached to streetlights, can feel removed from the relative poverty of French Guiana, where income inequality is significantly worse than in mainland France. In Kourou, many of the red-roofed, white-stone homes are surrounded by security gates. Residents of Kourou have twice protested working conditions and pay at the spaceport. From the beach, empty on a weekday afternoon except for some plovers pecking in the sand, you can see a trio of islands interrupting the blue expanse. One of them is Devil’s Island, the penal colony that held Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, who was wrongfully convicted of treason in the 1890s—a reminder that this place has long been used by powerful figures for their own purposes.

Some of the out-of-towners working on the Webb mission have been in Kourou for weeks, and when they’re not needed at the spaceport—if, for example, a technical problem temporarily halts preparations—they’re getting to know the area. They have gone to the zoo and seen blue butterflies the size of a pair of hands, or to Monkey Mountain, a hiking trail that lives up to its name. Like Ochs, many have their own wildlife stories: Arnaud Marsollier, a spokesperson for the European Space Agency who is here from the Netherlands, told me about a snake he saw slithering across the road, so long and gigantic that Marsollier decided to turn his car around and come back later.

“The morale is okay to good,” Ochs said, when I asked about the NASA team working on Webb. “They’re just tired. They’re psyched about the launch, they want to get going, but they miss their families.”

The rainy season is just beginning, and in the past few days, the rain has arrived suddenly, pelting the lush landscape in short bursts before returning the sky to the sun. Officials recently delayed the Webb launch by a day because of bad weather, but the rain isn’t the problem. It’s high-altitude winds. The Ariane rocket can’t launch in such conditions, because if an anomaly occurs and the rocket explodes, the winds could carry debris, spacecraft propellant, and other hazardous materials toward the residents of Kourou.

I was with Ochs on Tuesday night when he got the news that the launch had been pushed again, from Christmas Eve to Christmas Day. As he looked at his phone, I waited for Ochs to react. A quiet scream, perhaps, or at least a deep sigh. The tension surrounding this launch has seemed to me as thick as the humidity here. But Ochs was unfazed. The weather can’t be controlled, after all. And this isn’t the kind of project you rush. Ochs has been in this business for years, and he knows how it works. He joined NASA in 1983, and managed Hubble operations when the observatory launched in 1990. He oversaw two astronaut missions to Hubble to fix the telescope’s mirror, which had launched with a flaw that blurred its view of the cosmos. The Webb project has been in the works for more than 25 years now. It has been running behind schedule, and over budget, for almost as long. Another day is a small difference in the grand scheme of the project.

So far, Christmas looks like a good day for launch. Today, a small blue truck, crawling along at a maximum speed of four kilometers an hour (2.5 miles an hour), pulled the giant rocket, with Webb stacked on top, to the launchpad  The rocket wasn’t secured to its moving platform; it’s so heavy that it can’t tip over, even in windy conditions, Bruno Gérard, Arianespace’s vice president of French Guiana operations, told me as we stood looking up at the Ariane 5 before its departure. The last time anyone laid eyes on the observatory was last week, when Webb, all folded up, was tucked inside the Ariane’s nose cone. The next time the nose cone opens, Webb will lurch itself toward its destination 1 million miles from Earth and begin the most complicated robotic deployment in the history of space exploration, unfolding itself piece by piece.

Sarah Kendrew, an astronomer at the European Space Agency who is based in Baltimore, tries not to think too much about the process, and what could go wrong. “You can lie awake at night, going through all the scenarios of, like, What if this happens, what if that happens?” Kendrew told me when we met up in Kourou. “We just try to be really excellent at the parts that we control.” She’s ready to see what Webb might reveal about the universe—about the first stars and galaxies, yes, but also about exoplanets and black holes and other wonders. As someone who works on one of Webb’s sensitive scientific instruments, Kendrew reviewed some of the research proposals that had been accepted for the mission’s first observations. They described so many intriguing ideas, so many new ways to look at the universe. “It’s just like, I really want to see what happens with this one. And, That’s really cool. And, Wow, this is really interesting,” Kendrew said.

The Webb mission is so close to liftoff now, to really beginning. As project manager, Ochs can stop the launch just seconds before liftoff if his team notices something troubling in any of the readings. He’s already rehearsed for the big day, but when he pressed the button, nothing happened. It turns out that he would have to press a little harder for the command to register.

So it’s on you, I said. “You are the last defense against—” and I waved my hand in the air to illustrate the immense, invisible stakes around us.

“I wasn’t nervous about it until you said that,” Ochs said. And then he cracked up. He was kidding, of course. He takes this project extremely seriously, and he trusts that his teams have built the best instrument they could. But it’s important to laugh often, Ochs said, so he does. “If we’re not laughing, then we’d be crying about some of the stuff that’s happened to us over the years,” he said.

No one involved in this project—not the engineers turning the screws, nor the scientists preparing for the first, fresh observations—could have imagined that Webb would launch in the middle of a pandemic. Or that the officials in the launch-control room would have to get tested for a virus before they entered, and wait for the results to decide whether they’d miss the moment they had imagined for so long. They don’t know how much longer they’ll be here, but they’re keeping their fingers crossed. For as long as it takes, they’re focused on a singular goal: getting this thing off the ground and into space, where it belongs.

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