NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary instrument built to peer the farthest yet into the cosmos, was launched by rocket early Saturday.
It was launched from South America’s northeastern coast, opening a much anticipated new era of astronomical exploration.
The powerful $9 billion infrared telescope, hailed by NASA as the premiere space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 7:30 a.m. EST (1230 GMT) from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch base in French Guiana.
The launch was carried live on a joint NASA-ESA webcast.
If all goes as planned, the 14,000-pound instrument will be released from the French-built rocket after a 26-minute ride into space and gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward.
Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1 million miles from Earth – about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb’s special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.
By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from 340 miles away, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow every 90 minutes.
Named after the man who oversaw NASA through most of its formative decade of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to transform scientists’ understanding of the universe and our place in it.
Webb mainly will view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born, while Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
The new telescope’s primary mirror – consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal – also has a much bigger light-collecting area, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back into time, than Hubble or any other telescope.
That, astronomers say, will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen – dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
Hubble’s view reached back to roughly 400 million years following the Big Bang, revealing objects that Webb will be able to re-examine with far greater clarity.
Aside from examining the formation of the earliest stars in the universe, astronomers are eager to study super-massive black holes believed to occupy the centers of distant galaxies.
Webb’s instruments also make it ideal to search for evidence of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets – celestial bodies orbiting distant stars – and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.
The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N) was the primary contractor. The Arianespace launch vehicle is part of the European contribution.
Webb was developed at a cost of $8.8 billion, with operational expenses projected to bring its total price tag to about $9.66 billion, far higher than planned when NASA was previously aiming for a 2011 launch.
Astronomical operation of the telescope, to be managed from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is expected to begin in the summer of 2022, following about six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments.
It is then that NASA expects to release the initial batch of images captured by Webb. Webb is designed to last up to 10 years.
Developed by scientists, engineers from 14 countries of the world, the telescope required 40 million hours of work to be ready before it was locked on top of the rocket. The telescope is so sensitive that it can theoretically detect the heat coming from a bumblebee located at the distance of the Moon from Earth.
Set to be the premier observatory for the next decade, the telescope will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of other planetary systems in the universe.
“The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope marks an important leap in the field of observational astronomy, opening up the final frontier of the cosmos,” said Dr Aayush Saxena of the University College of London, who has secured working hours with the telescope.
Being hailed as a revolutionary force in the field of astronomy, the James Webb Telescope will provide insights into the mysterious type of planets that are larger than Earth, smaller than Neptune, and orbiting closer to their stars than Mercury orbits the Sun. As a powerful time-machine with infrared vision, the telescope will peer back over 13.5 billion years, helping astronomers compare the faintest, earliest galaxies to today’s grand spirals and ellipticals shedding light on the process of their evolution.
It will be able to see right through and into massive clouds of dust that are opaque to visible-light observatories like Hubble while exploring the mysterious atmospheres of extrasolar planets, and perhaps even find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe.