The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA's premier space observatory of the next decade

December 25, 2021

It’s a moment that has been decades in the making. The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s premier space observatory of the next decade, successfully launched on Christmas morning.

At 7:20 a.m. ET, the telescope launched atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.

“The @NASAWebb Space Telescope has been LIFTOFF!” NASA tweeted about it. “The start of a new, thrilling decade of research soared to the sky at 7:20 a.m. ET (12:20 a.m. UTC). Webb’s goal to #UnfoldTheUniverse will transform the way we think about space.”

The Webb telescope has been delayed for years due to a mix of circumstances including the pandemic and technological difficulties. However, the world’s most powerful and sophisticated space observatory will provide answers to concerns about our solar system, new techniques to investigate exoplanets, and a deeper view into the cosmos than we’ve ever been able to.

On Twitter, the European Space Agency correctly described it as “an wonderful Christmas present” for multinational launch teams and all of space science.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed his thanks to the multinational teams that contributed to the mission’s success and the launch on Christmas Day.

Soon after the launch, Nelson declared, “This is a terrific day for planet Earth.” “I’d want to express my gratitude to the entire staff. You’ve all been extraordinary. You worked on this telescope for three decades, and it will now transport us to the very origins of the cosmos. We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined.”

Webb will gaze into the atmospheres of exoplanets, some of which may be habitable, and may provide clues to the ongoing quest for life beyond Earth.

The telescope has a mirror that can reach 21 feet and 4 inches (6.5 meters) into space, giving it a vast length that will allow it to catch more light from the things it examines while in orbit. The more light collected by the mirror, the more details the telescope can see.

The mirror is made up of 18 hexagonal gold-coated parts, each measuring 4.3 feet (1.32 meters).

According to NASA, it’s the biggest mirror the organization has ever manufactured, but its size posed a unique difficulty.

The mirror was too big to fit inside a rocket. So the NASA team designed the telescope as a series of moving parts that can fold origami-style and fit inside a 16-foot (5-meter) space for launch.

Webb will act as an infrared detective, detecting light that is invisible to us and revealing otherwise hidden regions of space, according to NASA.

Scott Murray, an optical expert of Ball Aerospace, examines the telescope’s first gold main mirror piece.

Thousands of scientists, technicians, and engineers from 14 nations have put in 40 million hours to construct the telescope since 2004. Instruments from the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency are included in the telescope.

Now, Webb is poised to help us comprehend the universe’s origins and begin to address fundamental issues about our existence, such as where we originated from and if we are alone in the universe.

What Webb will see

The Webb telescope will study every stage of cosmic evolution, from the earliest glimmers after the big bang that formed our universe through the birth of galaxies, stars, and planets that populate it today. The observatory’s capabilities will allow it to answer questions about our own solar system as well as analyze feeble signals from the earliest galaxies, which formed 13.5 billion years ago.

The telescope will examine a number of exoplanets in more detail in order to glimpse into their atmospheres, if any exist, and answer concerns about how the planets arose and developed.

Scientists may use the data obtained by the telescope to determine if the atmosphere contains methane, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide. The gases in these extraterrestrial atmospheres may disclose the fundamental elements of life.

Observing the supermassive black hole at the heart of the Milky Way is another goal for the first research mission, actively forming planetary systems, bright quasars at the center of galaxies, and leftovers from the formation of our solar system known as Kuiper Belt Objects.

What it can do

Engineering Webb was a huge task, even with all of its superlatives. There are three primary components to the observatory.

The Integrated Science Instrument Module, for example, houses Webb’s four instruments. These equipment will mostly be used for picture capture or spectroscopy, which is the process of breaking down light into distinct wavelengths in order to detect physical and chemical components.

The Optical Telescope Element, or primary eye of the observatory, consists of the mirrors and the backplane, or spine, that supports the mirrors. The Spacecraft Element, which comprises the spacecraft bus and sunshield, is another option.

The spacecraft bus houses the spacecraft’s six core subsystems, which include propulsion, electrical power, communication, data, and temperature controls. The spacecraft’s infrastructure is supported by this “bus” design, which isn’t truly a bus.

Webb’s gigantic mirror and instruments must be kept at an extremely cold negative 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 188 degrees Celsius) to work, thus the five-layer sunshield unfurls to the size of a tennis court to shelter them from the sun’s heat.

When to expect the first images

The observatory will travel for roughly a month before arriving at a distance of around 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. Webb will unfold its mirrors and sunshield during the course of those 29 days. Thousands of pieces are involved in this operation, all of which must function flawlessly and in the correct order.

Fortunately, if there are any problems, each step may be controlled from the ground.

After that, it will go through a six-month phase of commissioning in orbit. This involves instrument cooling, alignment, and calibration. All of the instruments will be checked to ensure that they are in working order.

In a statement, Gregory L. Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA Headquarters, said, “The launch of the Webb Space Telescope is a significant milestone — this is only the beginning for the Webb mission.”

“Now we’ll be on the edge of our seats as we wait for Webb’s highly anticipated and crucial 29 days. Webb will go through the most challenging and complicated deployment procedure ever undertaken in space when it unfurls in orbit. We shall see awe-inspiring visuals that will grab our mind after the commissioning is completed.”

Later in 2022, Webb will begin collecting data and producing its first photographs. For years, tens of thousands of scientists have been waiting to see what the observatory has to offer.

In a statement, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said, “The first year of Webb’s observations will provide the first opportunity for a diverse range of scientists around the world to observe particular targets with NASA’s next great space observatory.”

“The incredible research that will be shared with the world will be bold and meaningful.”

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