The largest and most powerful space telescope in the world shot away on Saturday to see the light of the first stars and galaxies and to search the universe for traces of life.
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope soared from French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America onto a European Ariane rocket into the Christmas morning sky.
The $ 10 billion observatory raced toward its destination a million miles away, or more than four times, behind the moon. It will take a month to get there and another five months for its infrared eyes to be ready to scan the cosmos.
First, the telescope’s huge mirror and sun visor must unfold; they were folded in origami style to fit into the missile’s nose cone. Otherwise, the observatory will not be able to look back 13.7 billion years, as expected, within just 100 million years of the universe-forming Big Bang.
“It will give us a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the eternal quest,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson earlier this week.
But he warned, “If you want a big reward, you usually have to take a big risk.”
A successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, the long-delayed James Webb was named after the NASA administrator in the 1960s. NASA has partnered with European and Canadian space agencies to build and launch the new 7-ton telescope, which has been working on thousands of people from 29 countries since the 1990s.
As the launch fell on Christmas and the number of COVID-19 cases increased worldwide, there were fewer spectators than expected at the launch site in French Guiana. Nelson said goodbye along with a congressional delegation and many contractors who were working on the telescope.
Astronomers around the world had been waiting longingly for Webb to flee after years of setbacks. Last-minute technical problems stalled the launch for almost a week, then gusty winds pushed them to Christmas. There were a couple of Christmas hats in Launch Control.
“We’re starting this morning for humanity,” said Stephane Israel, CEO of Arianespace, minutes before take-off. “After Webb, we’ll never see the sky like this again.”
The showpiece of the telescope: a gold-plated mirror more than 21 feet in diameter.
The protection of the observatory is a thin, five-layer sunscreen that is important to keep the light-collecting mirror and the heat-sensitive infrared detectors at sub-zero temperatures. At 70 x 46 feet, it is the size of a tennis court.
If all goes well, the sun visor will open three days after taking off, with a minimum of five days for it to unfold and click into place. Next, the mirror segments should open like the leaves of a folding table, about 12 days after the flight.
In total, hundreds of trigger mechanisms must work perfectly for the telescope to be successful. “We have never done anything like this before,” said NASA program director Greg Robinson.
Retired astronaut-astronomer Steven Hawley is more stressed about Webb than he is about Hubble, which he launched from the space shuttle Discovery in 1990. That’s because Webb will be too far away to salvage what it took when it found Hubble had a blurry view from a broken mirror.
Astronaut space walks have turned Hubble into a beloved marvel that revolutionized human understanding of the universe, throwing its eyes back up to 13.4 billion years. It is now up to Webb to get even closer to the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, whose infrared vision is sharper and more far-reaching than that of Hubble in the shorter visible and ultraviolet wavelength range.
NASA turns Webb’s operating life for 10 years. Engineers purposely left the fuel tank accessible for refilling by visiting spaceships if and when such technology becomes available.
When he fired Hubble, “I never believed it would still be fine nearly 32 years later,” Hawley, now a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, said in an email. “I hope that in 32 years we can say that JWST did too.”