NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope arrives in French Guiana ahead of Dec. 18 launch

The earthly journeys of NASA’s next big space observatory are nearly at an end.

A cargo ship carrying the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope arrived in French Guiana on Tuesday (Oct. 12), wrapping up a 16-day ocean voyage that covered 5,800 miles (9,300 kilometers), NASA officials said.

The ship, known as the MN Colibri, departed from Seal Beach in Southern California’s Orange County on Sept. 26. It entered the Panama Canal on Oct. 5, moving from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, and then made its way to French Guiana, a French territory on South America’s northeastern coast.

Related: Building the James Webb Space Telescope (photos)

The precious cargo will next be driven to Europe’s Spaceport in the French Guiana town of Kourou, where it will be prepped for a planned Dec. 18 launch atop an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket. 

After liftoff, Webb will head toward the Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable spot in space about 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from its home planet. Once there, the 13,670-lb. (6,200 kilograms) telescope will start observing the cosmos in infrared light, helping scientists study the universe’s first stars and galaxies and hunt for signs of life in the atmospheres of nearby alien planets, among many other tasks.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is a colossal achievement, built to transform our view of the universe and deliver amazing science,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement today

“Webb will look back over 13 billion years to the light created just after the Big Bang, with the power to show humanity the farthest reaches of space that we have ever seen,” Nelson said. “We are now very close to unlocking mysteries of the cosmos, thanks to the skills and expertise of our phenomenal team.”

Webb’s road to the launch pad has been a long and circuitous one. Development of the ambitious telescope began in 1996, with launch initially targeted for 2007, but the project experienced numerous delays and cost overruns over the years.

Related stories:

Assembly of the big observatory finally began in 2013 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. In 2017, the telescope was shipped to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for cryogenic testing. A year later, Webb went to the Southern California facilities of prime contractor Northrop Grumman for a more extensive series of trials, which didn’t wrap up until this past August. Completion of those tests cleared the way for the telescope’s journey to French Guiana.

“Webb’s arrival at the launch site is a momentous occasion,” Gregory Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in the same statement. 

“We are very excited to finally send the world’s next great observatory into deep space,” he added. “Webb has crossed the country and traveled by sea. Now it will take its ultimate journey by rocket 1 million miles from Earth, to capture stunning images of the first galaxies in the early universe that are certain to transform our understanding of our place in the cosmos.”

Editor’s note: The original version of this story stated that the MN Colibri traveled 1,500 miles (2,500 km) at sea on its way to French Guiana. NASA provided that number but later said it was incorrect. The story has been updated with the correct figure, which NASA says is 5,800 miles (9,300 km).

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook