The James Webb Space Telescope, created by Nasa to give the world sight of the cosmos as it existed when the first galaxies formed, was launched by rocket from South America’s northeastern coast early Saturday, ushering in a new age of astronomy.
The breakthrough $9 billion infrared telescopes were taken aloft within the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 7.20 a.m. from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch facility in French Guiana, hailed by Nasa as the leading space-science observatory of the next decade.
The perfect launch, which included a countdown in French, was broadcast live on a joint Nasa-ESA webcast on Christmas Day.
The £14,000 device was freed from the top stage of the French-built rocket after a 27-minute flight into space, and will gradually unfold to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it floats on its own.
As the Webb was launched, a camera attached to the rocket’s upper stage got live video of it gliding softly away high above the Earth. Webb’s power source was certified functioning by flight controllers shortly later.
The Webb telescope will travel through space for two more weeks before arriving at its target in solar orbit, which is 1 million miles from Earth and four times farther than the moon. As the planet and telescope circle, the sun in tandem, Webb’s unusual orbital route will maintain it in continual alignment with the Earth.
The Hubble Space Telescope, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, circles the Earth from 340 miles away every 90 minutes, going in and out of the planet’s shadow.
Webb is around 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is intended to alter scientists’ knowledge of the cosmos and our place in it. Webb is named after the man who oversaw Nasa for most of its formative decade in the 1960s.
While Hubble has predominantly functioned at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths, Webb will primarily survey the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through clouds of gas and dust where stars are created.
The primary mirror of the new telescope, which is made up of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal, has a much larger light-collecting area than Hubble’s or any other telescope, allowing it to observe objects at greater distances and thus further back in time than Hubble or any other telescope.
According to astronomers, this will reveal a hitherto unseen image of the cosmos, dating from just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the hypothesized flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe 13.8 billion years ago.
Hubble’s observations spanned around 400 million years after the Big Bang when the first galaxies — huge collections of stars, gases, and other interstellar materials — are thought to have formed.
Astronomers are interested in studying super-massive black holes, which are thought to exist in the centers of distant galaxies, in addition to studying the development of the universe’s first stars and galaxies.
Webb’s capabilities also make it perfect for looking for evidence of possibly life-supporting atmospheres around a slew of recently discovered exoplanets – celestial bodies orbiting faraway stars — as well as observing worlds closer to home, such Mars and Saturn’s frozen moon Titan.
Nasa is leading an international effort with the European and Canadian space agencies to build the telescope. The main contractor was Northrop Grumman Corp. The European contribution includes the Arianespace launch vehicle.
Webb was developed at a cost of $8.8 billion, with operational costs expected to increase the total cost to over $9.66 billion, significantly more than Nasa had anticipated when the spacecraft was originally scheduled to launch in 2011.
After around six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments, the astronomical operation of the telescope, which will be managed by the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is planned to begin in the summer of 2022.
Nasa expects to release the first batch of photographs obtained by Webb at that time. Webb is made to last for up to ten years.