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Webb is due to launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, at the earliest on 24 December. It will journey on a direct escape trajectory towards its target orbit more than 1.5 million kilometres from Earth. Part of ESA’s Estrack cooperative network, the Italian Space Agency (ASI) 10-metre antenna in Malindi, Kenya, will make first contact from the ground with the fledgling mission, with the all-important ‘first acquisition of signal’.
About 23 minutes after lift-off, Malindi will locate the Ariane 5 launch vehicle in flight, rising above the Western horizon, still housing its precious cargo. Only five minutes later, Webb will separate from the rocket and begin its solo life in space.
From the moment of separation, Malindi will have three phases of visibility with the mission; at first, the station will be in a ‘private call’ with Webb for the first hour after separation, after which point NASA’s Deep Space Antenna in Canberra will join the call and Malindi will switch to backup. When the spacecraft is no longer visible from Canberra, Malindi will again take over the reins one more time before NASA’s Madrid station joins the call.