|SPACE & SHIIPPNG|
When NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches, it will undergo one of the most harrowing deployment processes any spacecraft has ever endured. But before it even gets on top of its ride to space, Webb had to complete a final journey here on Earth: a roughly 5,800-mile (9,300-kilometer) voyage at sea.
Webb was shipped from California on Sept. 26, ultimately passing through the Panama Canal to reach the Port de Pariacabo—located on the Kourou River in French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America—on Oct. 12. Webb will now be driven to its launch site, Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, where it will begin two months of operational preparations before its scheduled Dec. 18 launch.
With the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built as cargo, nothing about this trip was normal.
A custom-made ‘suitcase’
As a one-of-a-kind machine, Webb required a colossal, specially designed “suitcase” known as STTARS, short for Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea. STTARS weighs about 168,000 pounds (76,000 kilograms). It is 18 feet (5.5 meters) high, 15 feet (4.6 meters) wide, and 110 feet (33.5 meters) long—about twice the length of a semi-trailer.
This custom container was outfitted for any extreme or unexpected conditions Webb could have encountered during travel. In designing, building, and testing STTARS, engineers carefully tested how to best protect the container from heavy rainfall and other environmental factors.
Charting the course
Planning any trip is hard work. With Webb, added to that are the logistics of transporting an extremely large and incredibly sensitive space telescope across two oceans.
For Charlie Diaz, Webb’s launch site operations manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Webb’s arrival in Kourou was the culmination of years of preparation: “There are just thousands of different things that go on behind the scenes: pulling permits, avoiding obstructions, selecting alternate routes…all kinds of nuances. I’m so proud of our team—we’ve been working at this now for a long time.”
Webb’s ship voyage will ultimately be bookended by two short drives, one in California and one in French Guiana. The first took Webb from Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Redondo Beach, California, to its nearby port of departure at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach. The second drive will bring Webb from the Port de Pariacabo to its launch site of Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou.
Running a clean ship
As with other spacecraft, Webb must be kept clean while it is on Earth.
STTARS is essentially a mobile clean room. When Webb is on the move, STTARS maintains a low level of contaminants inside the container—no more than 100 airborne particles greater than or equal to 0.5 microns in size. For reference, half a micron is just one hundredth of the width of a human hair!
Webb’s contamination control team employed several tried-and-true methods to clean both the outside and inside of the container and prepare it for receiving and carrying Webb. Members carefully inspected each screw, nut, and bolt for residual contaminants using ultraviolet light. Next, Webb was installed into STTARS while both were inside the Northrop Grumman clean room. This will seal in cleanliness until STTARS can be opened inside the receiving clean room at the launch site.
Neil Patel, Webb’s transportation manager at Goddard, was one of five Webb team members who accompanied STTARS on its journey to ensure that Webb would remain in good condition: “Traveling through the Panama Canal with Webb was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a first-time activity for our team. It was very special to be bringing this observatory to the very last place it will be here on Earth,” he said.
Having been transported by land, air, and now sea, the Webb telescope can already be considered a seasoned traveler. Soon, it will enter the final frontier it hasn’t explored—the great expanse of space.