The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope took off on Saturday in an effort to see the light of the first stars and galaxies and scour the universe for clues of life.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope took off from French Guiana to the northeastern coast of South America on the European Ariane rocket into the Christmas morning sky.
“What a wonderful Christmas present,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Mission Leader.
The $ 10 billion observatory was heading for its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers), more than four times the distance of the Moon. It will take a month and another five months to get there before his infrared eyes are ready to start scanning space.
First, you need to unfold the huge mirror and the telescope’s sun visor; they were folded in origami style to fit into the rocket nose cone. Otherwise, the observatory will not be able to look into the past 13.7 billion years as expected, just 100 million years after the Big Bang that formed the universe.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called Webb a time machine that will provide “a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the quest is everlasting.”
“We’re going to discover incredible things that we never knew existed,” Nelson said after takeoff, speaking from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But he warned, “There are countless more things that need to work, and they need to work perfectly … we know there is great risk in big rewards.”
Conceived as the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, the long-delayed James Webb is named after a NASA administrator in the 1960s. NASA has partnered with the European and Canadian space agencies to build and launch a new 7-ton telescope, which has worked on thousands of people from 29 countries since the 1990s.
As the launch fell on Christmas Day and the number of COVID-19 cases soared globally, there were fewer viewers at the French Guiana spaceport than expected. Nelson walked away with the congressional delegation and many of the telescope contractors.
Astronomers from around the world and countless others were determined to see Webb finally fly away after years of failure. Last minute technical issues hampered the launch for nearly a week, and then gusty winds pushed it towards Christmas. Some of the launch controllers donned Santa hats at the celebration.
“Today we have delivered a Christmas present to humanity,” said European Space Agency CEO Josef Aschbacher. He called it a special moment, but added, “It’s very nervous. I couldn’t run every single day. It won’t affect my life expectancy. “
Applause and applause echoed inside and outside the Launch Center following Webb’s flawless launch, with jubilant scientists hugging each other while shouts of “Go Webb!” and plaques that read “Bon Voyage Webb”.
Cameras at the top of the rocket allowed a last glimpse of the flickering telescope against the background of the Earth before it flew away. “This picture will forever remain in my memory,” Zurbukhen told reporters.
Telescope exhibit: a gilded mirror with a diameter of over 21 feet (6.5 meters).
The observatory is protected by a thin five-layer sunscreen, which is vital to maintaining freezing temperatures for the light-collecting mirror and heat-sensitive infrared detectors. 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters) is the size of a tennis court.
If all goes well, the sun visor will open three days after the start, and it will take at least five days to turn around and lock in place. The mirror segments should then unfold like leaves on a hanging table after about 12 days of flight.
All in all, for a telescope to work successfully, hundreds of triggers need to work flawlessly. Such a complex series of actions is unprecedented – “like nothing we have done before,” – said NASA Program Director Greg Robinson.
“Now our job is to start from here and carry on,” said Massimo Siavelli, the astronomer who leads the Webb mission at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The Institute serves as the control center for Hubble, and now for Webb.
Behind the Hubble Space Telescope will be challenging, according to Siavelli and former astronaut-astronomer Stephen Hawley, even though Webb is 100 times more powerful.
Hawley was, in fact, more worried about Webb than Hubble, whom he launched into orbit from the spacecraft Discovery in 1990. This is because Webb would be too far away to escape, which was necessary when Hubble had blurry vision. from a defective mirror.
The renovation of spacecraft by astronauts turned Hubble into a beloved miracle that revolutionized human understanding of the universe, returning his view 13.4 billion years ago. Webb now faces the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, and his infrared vision is sharper and broader than Hubble’s at shorter visible and ultraviolet wavelengths.
NASA films 10 years of operational life from Webb. The engineers deliberately left the fuel tank available for refilling during the visit to the spacecraft, if and when such technology becomes available.
“Hubble is like a great story. It starts badly, then the cavalry corrects it, then a great success. It’s almost like a Christmas movie in a way, ”Stiavelli said after Webb took off. “This is a high bar, but I hope Webb’s scientific contributions will be great.”