A new era of astronomy has begun with the launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope today, which was built to give us our first glimpse of the universe as it appeared when the first galaxies were formed. Ariane 5 rocket blasted off at 7:20 a.m. EST (1220 GMT) from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch base in French Guiana with the revolutionary $9 billion infrared telescopes, described by NASA as the premier space-science observatory of the next decade.
On Christmas Day, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) broadcast a live webcast of the flawless launch, which was conducted in French. After years of delays and cost overruns, the liftoff marked the culmination of a project that had been in the works for decades.
Webb’s mission will take him “from a tropical rain forest to the edge of time itself,” a NASA commentator said as the two-stage launch vehicle, equipped with double solid-rocket boosters, roars off its launch pad into cloudy skies.
Once released from the upper stage of the French-built rocket at an altitude of 865 miles, the 14,000-pound instrument is expected to gradually unfurl to the size of a tennis court in 13 days as it sails on its own.
The Webb was captured on video by a camera attached to the rocket’s upper stage after it was ejected, drawing cheers and applause from jubilant flight engineers in the mission control area.
Moments later, as Webb’s solar-energy array was deployed, flight controllers confirmed that the ship’s power supply was operational.
For the next two weeks, the James Webb Space Telescope will cruise through space, eventually reaching its final destination in solar orbit, which is approximately four times farther away from Earth than the moon. This unique orbital path for Webb’s telescope is designed to ensure that it will always be aligned with Earth as it orbits the sun in tandem with Earth.
From an altitude of 340 miles (700 kilometres), Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, Hubble, orbits Earth twice a day, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow once every 90 minutes.
According to scientists, the Webb space telescope, named after NASA’s longtime administrator during the 1960s, will be 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and will revolutionise how scientists think about the universe and our place in it.
By way of a video link, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson cited Bible verses and described the new telescope as a “time machine” capable of capturing “the light from the very beginning of the creation.”
A HISTORICAL LESSON IN COSMOLOGY
Unlike Hubble, Webb will primarily operate in the infrared spectrum, which will allow it to peer through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being formed.
With its 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal, the new telescope’s primary mirror has an area that is much larger than Hubble’s or any other telescope’s primary mirror, allowing it to observe objects at greater distances and thus farther back in time.
Scientists believe that by looking back just 100 million years, they’ll get to see a glimpse of the universe that has never been seen before—the theoretical flashpoint that started the universe’s expansion some 13.8 billion years ago.
After the Big Bang, Hubble’s view spanned a period of about 400 million years, just after the first galaxies – sprawling clusters of stars and gases – began to form.
Astronomer Eric Smith, NASA’s Webb programme scientist, told Reuters hours before the launch that Webb will reveal “toddler” galaxies in greater detail while also capturing even fainter, earlier “infant” galaxies.
Astronomers are also interested in studying the supermassive black holes that are thought to be at the heart of distant galaxies.
As a result, Webb’s instruments can be used to search for evidence of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around a large number of newly discovered exoplanets, as well as the icy moons of Saturn.
The telescope is a joint effort between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. The primary contractor was Northrop Grumman Corp. The European contribution includes the Arianespace launch vehicle.
“The world gave us this telescope, and we handed it back to the world today,” Gregory Robinson, Webb programme director for NASA, said at a post-launch briefing.
When NASA originally planned to launch Webb in 2011, the total cost was expected to be $8.8 billion, but that figure has since risen to $9.66 billion.
After six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments, astronomical operations are expected to begin in the summer of 2022, managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Webb’s first batch of images is expected to be released in the next few weeks. Webb is built to last a decade or more.