The telescope lifted off on top of an Ariane 5 rocket from the European spaceport in French Guiana at 7:20 a.m.ET.
The Webb Telescope has suffered years of delays, including a combination of factors brought on by the pandemic and technical challenges. But the world’s most powerful and complex space observatory will answer questions about our solar system, study exoplanets in new ways, and examine the universe more deeply than we’ve ever been able to.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed gratitude to the international teams who made the mission and the Christmas Day launch possible.
“It’s a big day for planet Earth,” Nelson said shortly after the launch. “Thank you to the team. You have all been amazing. In three decades you have produced this telescope which will now take us back to the very beginnings of the universe. We are going to discover amazing things that we never imagined.”
Webb will scan the very atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which are potentially habitable, and may uncover clues in research into life outside Earth.
The telescope is equipped with a mirror that can extend 21 feet, 4 inches (6.5 meters) – a massive length that will allow the mirror to collect more light from the objects it observes once the telescope is up. in the space. The more light the mirror can collect, the more detail the telescope can observe.
The mirror consists of 18 gold-coated hexagonal segments, each 4.3 feet (1.32 meters) in diameter.
It’s the largest mirror NASA has ever built, the agency said, but its size has created a unique problem. The mirror was so big it couldn’t fit into a rocket. The NASA team therefore designed the telescope as a series of moving parts that can bend origami-style and fit into a 5-meter (16-foot) space for launch.
Webb will act like an infrared sleuth, detecting light that is invisible to us and revealing otherwise hidden regions of space, according to NASA.
Since 2004, thousands of scientists, technicians and engineers from 14 countries have spent 40 million hours building the telescope. The telescope includes instruments from the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
Now Webb is ready to help us understand the origins of the universe and start answering key questions about our existence, such as where we are from and if we are alone in the cosmos.
What Webb will see
The Webb Telescope will examine every phase of cosmic history, including the first light after the Big Bang that created our universe and the formation of the galaxies, stars, and planets that fill it today. Its capabilities will allow the observatory to answer questions about our own solar system and to study weak signals from the first galaxies formed 13.5 billion years ago.
The telescope will take a closer look at a selection of exoplanets to peer inside their atmosphere, if they have any, and help answer questions about the formation and evolution of the planets. Data collected by the telescope can tell scientists whether there is methane, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide in the atmosphere. The gases contained in these extraterrestrial atmospheres could reveal the very building blocks of life.
Other objects of interest for the initial science campaign include the observation of the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, the active formation of planetary systems, the bright quasars at the center of galaxies, and the remnants of our system’s formation. solar cells known as Kuiper Belt Objects. .
What he can do
With all of its superlatives, Webb engineering was an extraordinary challenge. The observatory is made up of three main elements.
One is the Integrated Science Instrument Module, which contains Webb’s suite of four instruments. These instruments will be used primarily for image capture or spectroscopy – breaking down light into different wavelengths to determine the physical and chemical components.
The main eye of the observatory, called part of the optical telescope, consists of the mirrors and the backplane, or spine, which supports the mirrors. And then there’s the Spacecraft Element, which includes the spaceship bus and the sun visor.
The spacecraft bus consists of the six major subsystems required to operate the spacecraft, including propulsion, power, communication, data, and thermal controls. This “bus” design, which doesn’t actually look like a bus, is used to support the infrastructure of the spacecraft.
The five-layer sunshade deploys to reach the size of a tennis court and it will protect Webb’s giant mirror and instruments from the heat of the sun – as they must be kept at a very cold temperature of 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 188 degrees Celsius) to operate.
When to wait for the first images
Fortunately, every step can be controlled from the ground if something goes wrong.
And then it will go through a commissioning period in space that will last six months. This includes instrument cooling, alignment and calibration. All instruments will go through a verification process to see how they perform.
“The launch of the Webb Space Telescope is a pivotal moment – it’s just the start of the Webb mission,” Gregory L. Robinson, director of the Webb program at NASA headquarters, said in a statement.
Webb will begin collecting data and its first images later in 2022. Thousands of scientists have been waiting for years to see what the observatory can show us.
“Webb’s first year of observation will be the first opportunity for a wide range of scientists around the world to observe particular targets with NASA’s next large space observatory,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the Directorate of NASA science missions, in a press release. .
“The amazing science that will be shared with the global community will be bold and deep.”
To learn more about the telescope, you can watch the CNN movie “The Hunt For Planet B” on CNNgo. The documentary follows the scientists as they build and plan the launch. He also looks at the search for life on planets outside of our solar system.