The James Webb Space Telescope has been delayed for years. But it’s finally about to head for orbit.

The Hubble Telescope is 31 years old. While it still produces stunning shots of deep space objects, it’s increasingly unreliable and quite frankly obsolete. It focuses only on visible and ultraviolet light, which means it’s missing most of what’s out there.

The James Webb Space Telescope is intended to be the Hubble’s replacement. Named after the man who led NASA through the 1960s and to the Moon, this 7-ton orbiting assortment of mirrors and lenses is 100 times more powerful than Hubble.

The light-collecting gold-plated mirror of the Webb Telescope is so large that it has to fold origami-style to fit inside the rocket intended to ferry it to orbit. Unfolded, it will be the size of a several parking spots. Its sunshade will be the size of a tennis court, keeping sunlight and earth-shine out of the sensitive equipment.

Able to see infrared and heat through icy space, the Webb will be able to look back in time, in a manner of speaking. By looking at old, red-shifted light, scientists hope to study the oldest galaxies and stars in our field of view. Because of the speed of light, they will be looking back 13.7 million years into the past, nearly all the way to the estimated time of the Big Bang. They want to see how those early galaxies resemble the one we live in today.

It’s a somewhat riskier endeavor than Hubble. The Webb’s unfolding is a nervous process, complicated and reliant on many systems working perfectly with no backup. It will also be farther away than Hubble, almost a million miles away. Far too far for the mechanic to visit should something foul up. These details are a lot of the cause for the delay – everyone involved wants the operation to be perfect.

It may launch as early as Christmas Day.

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