Emre Kelly | Florida Today
The world’s flagship science instrument took flight from South America early Saturday, a high-stakes mission that, from well beyond the moon, will peer deeper into the universe’s 13.8 billion-year history than ever before.
Officials from three agencies and dozens of countries watched in anticipation as the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope vaulted off the pad, a European Ariane 5 rocket lighting up the Christmas Day sky in the South American territory of French Guiana. The 7:20 a.m. liftoff marked the first true test for the 10-year mission.
“Go, Webb, go!” Jean-Luc Voyer, director of operations for rocket builder Arianespace, said as he confirmed good separation of the telescope from the upper stage 27 minutes after liftoff.
Once unfurled and in its orbit beyond the moon about a million miles from Earth, Webb will use a massive, 21-foot primary mirror made up of 18 gold-coated hexagonal tiles to study the cosmos. Its standout capability is infrared observation, meaning obstacles like dust clouds won’t be an issue. Scientists will be able to see the early phases of star formation and even the atmospheric compositions of promising far-off planets.
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Webb is the successor to Hubble Space Telescope, which revolutionized science with the Hubble Deep Field that famously captured thousands of galaxies in a single image. The project is a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and Canadian Space Agency.
Total cost to NASA: $10 billion over its 25-year development history. And that doesn’t include costs incurred by ESA and CSA.
“Whenever we look at launches, they’re both a beginning and an ending,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of science, said after the launch. “They’re an ending of an engineering project on the ground … but they’re the beginning of one of the most amazing missions that humanity has conceived.”
Despite the nail-biter of a launch, Webb’s truly dramatic moments are still ahead of it. Over the next 29 days – referred to as “29 days on the edge” – the telescope will have to perform a perfect series of maneuvers to unfurl out of its launch configuration and into the sunflower-like instrument seen in renderings.
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Webb and other spacecraft have to be able to fold origami-style to fit in the protective payload fairings, or nose cones, of rockets. One of the reasons Ariane 5 was chosen for this mission was its larger-than-usual fairing, which measures 17.7 feet in diameter.
About 10,000 people from dozens of countries have worked on the Webb program. Some have seen their entire careers elapse just for this telescope, while others have moved onto other fields.
One thing is certain for all of them, according to Project Scientist Klaus Pontoppidan: the discoveries Webb promises will likely lead to even more questions – and people wanting to help answer them.
“Webb will probably also reveal new questions for future generations of scientists to answer, some of whom may not even be born yet,” he said.