The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope rocketed away Saturday on a high-stakes quest to behold light from the first stars and galaxies and scour the universe for hints of life.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope soared from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast, riding a European Ariane rocket into the Christmas morning sky.
It traveled a distance of 1.6 million km (1 million miles) to reach its final destination, which is more than four times farther than the moon. The journey will take one month and five more months to reach its destination.
First, the telescope’s enormous mirror and sunshield need to unfurl; they were folded origami-style to fit into the rocket’s nose cone. Otherwise, the observatory won’t be able to peer back in time 13.7 billion years as anticipated, within a mere 100 million years of the universe-forming Big Bang.
“It’s going to give us a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that’s eternal,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said earlier this week.
But he cautioned: “When you want a big reward, you have to usually take a big risk.”
Intended as a successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, the long-delayed James Webb is named after NASA’s administrator during the 1960s. NASA worked with Canadian and European space agencies in building and launching the 7-ton telescope. It was built by thousands of workers from 29 different countries.
The launch fell on Christmas, and there was a worldwide surge in COVID-19 case cases. There were less people at French Guiana’s launch site than anticipated. Nelson was joined by a congressional delegation as well as many contractors working on the telescope.
Astronomers around the globe eagerly awaited Webb’s flight, after many years of delays. Webb’s launch took nearly a week due to technical problems. The launch was then pushed forward by gusty winds until Christmas. Launch Control had a small assortment of Santa hats.
“We launch for humanity this morning,” Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel said minutes before liftoff. “After Webb, we will never see the skies in quite the same way.”
The telescope’s showpiece: a gold-plated mirror more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) across.
The observatory’s protection is provided by a five-layered, wispy sunshield. This shield helps keep light-gathering mirrors and infrared heat detectors sub-zero. At 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters), it’s the size of a tennis court.
All goes well and the sunshield should be open three days after liftoff. The sunshield must then be unfolded and locked in place for at least five more days. The mirror sections should then open like drop-leaf leaves 12 days into flight.
In all, hundreds of release mechanisms need to work — perfectly — in order for the telescope to succeed. “Like nothing we’ve done before,” said NASA program director Greg Robinson.
Steven Hawley (retired astronaut and astronomer) is stressed more about Webb then he was over Hubble. Hubble was released from Space Shuttle Discovery into orbit in 1990. That’s because Webb will be too far away for rescuing, as was necessary when Hubble turned out to have blurry vision from a defective mirror.
Spacewalking repairs by astronauts transformed Hubble into a beloved marvel that has revolutionized humanity’s understanding of the universe, casting its eyes as far back as 13.4 billion years. It’s now up to Webb to draw even closer to the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, its infrared vision keener and more far-reaching than Hubble’s is in the shorter visible and ultraviolet wavelengths.
NASA is targeting 10 years of operation from Webb. NASA engineers deliberately left fuel tank open for refilling by visiting spacecraft if necessary.
When he released Hubble, “I never would have believed that it would still be going strong almost 32 years later,” Hawley, now professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, said in an email. “I hope that in 32 years we’ll be able to say that JWST did as well.”