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The most-powerful space telescope ever built has been on a road trip across the U.S. When it launches next year, NASA expects this $8.8 billion telescope to revolutionize astronomy, but it may have already revolutionized something else - the art of packing for a vacation. Because if you can pack up a massive telescope, I mean, cramming clothes, shoes, toiletries into a suitcase is nothing, right? NPR science correspondent Joe Palca was hanging out at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as people prepared a massive telescope for the latest leg of its journey.
JOE PALCA, BYLINE: You don't just stuff an $8.8 billion telescope into a box when you're ready to ship it. Everything has to be done in a clean room, so no dust or debris will get on the telescopes, mirrors or into its sensitive instruments. On this day, the telescope is sitting upright on a stand in a corner of the clean room while technicians are readying its shipping container.
NEAL PATEL: So right now what they're doing is they're just lifting the lid off. They have this specially-designed beam to lift it off of there.
PALCA: Neal Patel is a mechanical engineer. He specializes in moving spacecraft while they're on Earth. The shipping container is basically a flat pallet 110 feet long with a frame on top. There's a dome-like lid they're about to remove. The room grows silent.
PATEL: Why everyone's really quiet right now is just 'cause it's a critical op. Any time they're lifting anything overhead, it's a critical op.
PALCA: Engineers like Patel are being really, really careful in everything they do related to the telescope because they really hate to disappoint astrophysicists like Jackie Faherty.
JACKIE FAHERTY: For my own personal science, I'm ridiculously excited.
PALCA: Faherty is at the American Museum of Natural History. She studies space objects known as brown dwarfs. But Faherty says there's a ton more astronomers expect to learn using Webb.
FAHERTY: From the first moments when the universe was created to what we're going to get to know about exoplanets that are orbiting other stars that may have habitable life.
PALCA: Back in the clean room, I watch as the 10,000-pound container lid rises ever so slowly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MECHANICAL LIFT)
PALCA: Once it's clear of the pallet, things speed up. I wander over to the telescope sitting in the corner of the room. Folded up, it's about the size of a large school bus. It has a black carbon fiber body. But most striking is the 18 large gold hexagonal mirrors that will collect the starlight.
There's three large mirrors right above my head.
These mirrors will collect six times more light than the extremely successful Hubble Space Telescope. The next day, technicians began the process of unfastening the telescope from the stand it's been sitting on. The stand had been rotated so the telescope was now horizontal. Charlie Diaz is in charge of the entire move operation. He's been working on the logistics of moving the Webb telescope for more than a decade. Everything is meticulously planned. Diaz says the next step in today's operation is to remove the 16 bolts holding the telescope to its stand.
CHARLIE DIAZ: You can't just, you know, remove a bolt. You have to loosen it up, then loosen another one. This way, they're uniformly released so there are no stresses.
PALCA: It's a slow process, very slow.
SANDRA IRISH: We like it to go slow and steady.
PALCA: Sandra Irish is an aerospace engineer. Her job is to make sure the telescope isn't subjected to any stresses it can't handle. It was designed to operate in the essentially weightless environment of space. Here on Earth, gravity is a problem. Ultimately, the bolts come out. The telescope slides off the stand. It's raised up and then lowered ever so gently into its container. All the while, Sandra Irish has been watching the operation intently. I asked her if she was happy with the way the day was going.
IRISH: I think I'll being the most happy once we put on the frame and the lid and we can ship out. So - but yeah, so far, so good.
PALCA: The rest of the day went well. And a few days later, the telescope was loaded into a special C-5 cargo jet and flown to Los Angeles. It's now safely in another clean room where it will be readied for launch next year. Joe Palca, NPR News.
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