James Webb Space Telescope Launches on Journey to See the Dawn of Starlight

The goals and work of a era of astronomers headed for an orbit round the solar on Saturday in the kind of the largest and most costly space-based observatory ever constructed. The James Webb Space Telescope, a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, lifted off from a spaceport close to the Equator in Kourou, French Guiana, a teetering pillar of hearth and smoke embarking on a million-mile journey to the morning of time.

“The world gave us this telescope and we’re handing it back to the world today,” mentioned Gregory Robinson, the Webb telescope’s program director, throughout a post-launch information convention in French Guiana.

The telescope, named for the NASA administrator who led the house company by means of the early years of the Apollo program, is designed to see farther in house and additional again in time than the vaunted Hubble Space Telescope. Its major gentle gathering mirror is 21 ft throughout, about thrice larger than Hubble, and 7 occasions extra delicate.

The Webb’s mission is to search out the earliest, most distant stars and galaxies, which appeared 13.7 billion years in the past, burning their means out of a fog leftover from the Big Bang (which occurred 13.eight billion years in the past).

Astronomers watching the launch remotely from throughout the world, many Zooming collectively of their pajamas, had been jubilant.

“What an incredible Christmas present,” mentioned Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Tod Lauer of the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, in an e-mail trade with different astronomers reported his feeling about the launch: “Just enjoying the most sacred of all space words, “Nominal!” he mentioned, referring to the lingo utilized by launch groups to describe rockets working as anticipated.

To which Alan Dressler, a Carnegie Observatory astronomer and one of the founders of the Webb telescope undertaking, replied, “Hallelujah! — another sacred word for the moment, Tod.”

Priyamvada Natarajan, a cosmologist at Yale, emailed from India to describe herself as “Just utterly utterly elated! — wow! wow!”

In Baltimore at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the headquarters for Webb’s mission operations, a small group of scientists and NASA officers erupted in screams of pleasure and applauded throughout the launch.

The flight operations group in one other half of the institute then watched as Webb deployed its photo voltaic array, then its communications antenna minutes later. Roughly 100 mission personnel will command the spacecraft’s deployments, alternating between 12 hour shifts 24 hours a day because it begins its journey to some extent past the moon.

“They’ve got real work to do,” mentioned Kenneth Sembach, the institute’s director. “Our teams have spent the last two years doing numerous rehearsals.”

Equipped with detectors delicate to infrared or “heat radiation,” the telescope will paint the universe in colours no human eye has ever seen. The enlargement of the universe shifts the seen gentle from the earliest, most distant galaxies into the longer infrared wavelengths.

Studying the warmth from these toddler galaxies, astronomers say, may present essential clues to when and the way the supermassive black holes that squat in the facilities of galaxies kind. Closer to residence in the current, the telescope will sniff at the atmospheres of planets orbiting close by stars, searching for the infrared signatures of components and molecules related to life, like oxygen and water.

The Webb will study all of cosmic historical past, billions of years of it, astronomers say — from the first stars to life in the photo voltaic system. This week, the NASA administrator Bill Nelson referred to as the telescope a “keyhole into the past.”

“It is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we dream big,” he mentioned. After the launch he mentioned, “It’s a great day for planet Earth.”

The starting of the telescope’s journey didn’t go unnoticed by the house company’s paymasters in Congress, who’ve caught with the undertaking for many years now.

“Today’s successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope marks a historic milestone in our advancement of astrophysics and space science,” mentioned Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas and chairwoman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a information launch.

Saturday’s profitable launch caps an costly effort that stretched over 25 years of uncertainty, errors and ingenuity. Webb’s 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors, superior temperature controllers and ultrasensitive infrared sensors had been pieced collectively in a improvement timeline full of price overruns and technical hurdles. Engineers had to invent 10 new applied sciences alongside the means to make the telescope much more delicate than Hubble.

When NASA picked the Northrop Grumman firm to lead Webb’s building in 2002, mission managers estimated that it could price $1 billion to $3.5 billion and launch to house in 2010. Over-optimistic schedule projections, occasional improvement accidents and disorganized price reporting dragged out the timeline to 2021 and ballooned the general price to $10 billion.

Even its last lap to the launchpad appeared perilous as a mishap in the Kourou rocket bay, disconnected cables and worrisome climate studies moved the Webb’s departure date deeper into December, till a Christmas morning launch couldn’t be prevented.

“I’m so happy today,” mentioned Josef Aschbacher, director normal of the European Space Agency. But he added, “It’s very nerve racking, I couldn’t do launches every single day, this would not be good for my life expectancy.”

For astronomers and engineers, the launch was additionally a suspenseful sight to absorb.

“It was hard to sleep last night,” mentioned Adam Riess, an astrophysicist and Nobel laureate who will use the Webb telescope to measure the enlargement fee of the universe.

But the launch itself is simply the first step in an much more treacherous journey that astronomers and rocket engineers have referred to as “six months of anxiety.”

The photo voltaic panel deployment half an hour into the flight was the first in a monthlong collection of maneuvers and deployments with what NASA calls “344 single points of failure.”

“I could finally start breathing again when the solar arrays came out,” mentioned Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator. “We have so many hard days ahead of us, but you can’t even get started on any of that until this part goes perfectly.”

Among the most tense moments, astronomers say, can be the unfolding of an enormous sunscreen, the dimension of a tennis court docket, designed to hold the telescope in the darkish and chilly sufficient in order that its personal warmth doesn’t swamp the warmth from distant stars. The display is made of 5 layers of a plastic referred to as Kapton, which is analogous to mylar, and as flimsy as mylar. It has often ripped throughout rehearsals of its deployment.

If all goes nicely, astronomers will begin to see the universe in a brand new gentle subsequent summer season. They are most trying ahead to what they didn’t count on. As Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s affiliate administrator for science, mentioned just lately: “Every time we launch a big bold telescope, we get a surprise. This one is the biggest and boldest yet.”

But if something goes flawed in the coming weeks and months, the discipline of astronomy’s view of the origins of existence could also be imperiled. When issues snarled the work of the Hubble in the 1990s, NASA despatched astronauts in the house shuttles to carry out restore work. The Webb telescope is headed to some extent past the moon the place no spacecraft has ever carried people earlier than (though Ms. Melroy says NASA has contemplated a robotic repair mission if one had been wanted).

“I tell friends of mine who are not astronomers, after the launch, you mostly want to hear 30 days of nothing,” Dr. Riess mentioned. “And we’ll be really happy if we hear nothing.”

Dennis Overbye reported from New York, and Joey Roulette from Baltimore.

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