The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope has launched on a high-stakes mission to see light from the very earliest stars and galaxies, as well as search the universe for signs of life.
On Saturday, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launched into the morning sky from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast, riding a European Ariane rocket.
The $9 billion observatory hurtled towards its destination 1.6 million kilometres (1 million miles) distant, more than four times the distance between the earth and the moon. It’ll take a month to get there, then another five months for its infrared eyes to be ready to scan the cosmos.
The large mirror and sunshield of the telescope must first unroll; they were folded origami-style to fit into the rocket’s nose cone. Otherwise, the observatory will be unable to peek back in time 13.7 billion years, only 100 million years after the universe-forming Big Bang, as planned.
“It will help us better comprehend our cosmos and our place in it: who we are, what we are, and the endless search,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said earlier this week.
“When you want a huge payoff, you usually have to take a significant risk,” he said.
Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo, reporting from Kourou, French Guiana, said the historic mission has “revolutionised astronomy” and would “enable scientists to peek back in time to the early phases of our universe.”
“Scientists will also be able to evaluate planet atmospheres to establish whether or not planets are not only habitable and appropriate for people to colonise in the future, but also whether or not those conditions are perfect for life,” he said.
‘Launch for mankind’ is a phrase that means “launch for humanity.”
The long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope is named after NASA’s administrator during the 1960s and is intended to replace the ageing Hubble Space Telescope. The new 7-tonne telescope was built and launched in collaboration with NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, with thousands of people from 29 nations working on it during the 1990s.
Astronomers all over the world have been waiting for Webb to take flight after years of difficulties. Due to last-minute technical issues, the launch was delayed by over a week, and then it was postponed until Christmas due to strong winds.
“This morning, we launch for humanity,” Arianespace CEO Stephane Israel declared just minutes before liftoff. “After Webb, we’ll never look at the sky the same way again.”
One of the scientists working in the Webb Project, Klaus Pontipiddan, told Al Jazeera from Baltimore, US, that the launch was “amazing.”
He stated, “It was absolutely lovely to watch everything go off without a hitch.” “We are hopeful that we will now be able to glimpse the first galaxies that emerged in the universe around 13 billion years ago.”
The highlight of the telescope is a gold-plated mirror with a diameter of over 6.5 metres (21 ft).
A wispy, five-layered sunshield shields the observatory, which is necessary to keep the light-gathering mirror and heat-sensing infrared detectors at subzero temperatures. It’s the size of a tennis court, measuring 21 by 14 metres (70 by 46 ft).
The sunshield will be opened three days after liftoff if all goes well, and it will take at least five days to unfold and lock into position. After then, about 12 days into the flight, the mirror segments should open up like the leaves of a drop-leaf table.
Hundreds of releasing mechanisms must all work flawlessly for the telescope to be successful. NASA programme director Greg Robinson described the project as “unique.”