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James Webb Space Telescope successfully launched on Christmas morning!

The telescope, which is named for the NASA administrator who oversaw the space agency during the early years of the Apollo program, will be able to peer further into space and back in time than the famed Hubble Space Telescope. Its primary light gathering mirror is 21 feet in diameter, roughly three times the size of Hubble's and seven times more sensitive.

SPACE SCIENCE

Anne Agi

12/24/2021 8 min read

On Christmas morning, the year 2021, NASA's top space observatory for the next decade, the James Webb Space Telescope, was safely launched. At 7:20 a.m. ET, the telescope which replaces the Hubble Space telescope, launched atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

It is the world's largest and most expensive space observatory ever built! The James Webb Space Telescope, is a NASA, European Space Agency, and Canadian Space Agency collaboration.

""We have LIFTOFF of the @NASAWebb Space Telescope!" NASA shared on Twitter. "At 7:20am ET (12:20 UTC), the beginning of a new, exciting decade of science climbed to the sky. Webb's mission to #UnfoldTheUniverse will change our understanding of space as we know it."

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 questions about our solar system, new ways to investigate exoplanets, and a deeper view into the universe than we've ever been able to.

On Twitter, the European Space Agency correctly described it as ""an awesome Christmas present" for the international launch teams, as well as the whole of space science.

The telescope, which is named for the NASA administrator who oversaw the space agency during the early years of the Apollo program, will be able to peer further into space and back in time than the famed Hubble Space Telescope. Its primary light gathering mirror is 21 feet in diameter, roughly three times the size of Hubble's and seven times more sensitive.

After decades of delays and cost overruns, astronomers were overjoyed when the spacecraft finally launched. Webb's solar array was deployed first, followed by its communications antenna minutes later, as the flight operations team in another area of the facility observed. A tiny group of scientists and NASA executives at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, which oversees Webb's mission operations, erupted in yells of pleasure and applauded during the launch.

James Webb telescope blasting off launched atop an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

As the spacecraft begins its voyage beyond the moon, around 100 mission personnel will command the spacecraft's deployments, alternating between 12 hour shifts 24 hours a day. Kenneth Sembach, the institute's director, said, "“They’ve got real work to do.” "Our teams have spent the last two years doing numerous rehearsals.”

The objective of the Webb space telescope is to provide a fresh window into the earliest moments of our universe; find the earliest, farthest stars and galaxies, which first appeared 13.7 billion years ago, burning their way out of a fog left over from the Big Bang (which occurred 13.8 billion years ago) as it sets out on its trip to a destination beyond the moon.

The telescope, which is equipped with infrared or "heat radiation" detectors, will portray the universe in colors that no human eye has ever seen. The visible light from the earliest, furthest galaxies changes into the longer infrared wavelengths as the cosmos expands.

Astronomers believe that studying the heat from these newborn galaxies could reveal crucial information about when and how supermassive black holes residing in galaxies emerge. Closer to home in the present, the telescope will sniff at the atmospheres of planets orbiting nearby stars, looking for the infrared signatures of elements and molecules associated with life, like oxygen and water.

According to astronomers, the Webb will look at all of cosmic history, billions of years of it, from the first stars to life in the solar system.

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 objects it examines once 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 largest mirror the organization has ever manufactured, but its size posed a unique difficulty. The mirror was too big to fit inside a rocket. As a result, NASA engineers created the telescope as a set of moving elements that can fold up like origami and fit into a 16-foot (5-meter) space for launch.

The Webb will play the role of an infrared detective, detecting light that is invisible to us and revealing otherwise unseen regions of space.

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 ready to help us understand the universe's origins and begin to address fundamental issues about our existence, such as where we came from and whether we are alone in the universe.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed his gratitude to the multinational teams who contributed to the mission's success and the launch on Christmas Day. "This is a great day for planet Earth. Thanks to the team. You all have just been incredible. Over three decades, you produced this telescope that is now going to take us back to the very beginnings of the universe. We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined."

Launch teams prepping for the lift off of James Webb

Cost

The successful launch on Saturday was the culmination of a costly undertaking that spanned 25 years of uncertainty, blunders, and inventiveness. Webb's 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors, complex temperature controllers, and ultrasensitive infrared sensors were cobbled together over the course of a development timetable plagued by cost overruns and technical difficulties. To make the telescope significantly more sensitive than Hubble, engineers had to build ten new technologies along the way.

When NASA chose Northrop Grumman to oversee Webb's construction in 2002, mission officials anticipated that the mission would cost $1 billion to $3.5 billion and launch in 2010. Overly optimistic timetable forecasts, a few development mishaps, and sloppy cost reporting pushed the project's completion date to 2021, bringing the total cost to $10 billion.

Even the Webb's final lap to the launchpad seemed perilous, as an accident at the Kourou rocket bay, disconnected wires, and ominous weather warnings pushed the launch date back until December when a Christmas morning launch could not be avoided.

What Webb is going to see

The Webb telescope will study every stage of cosmic evolution, from the earliest glimmers after the big bang that created 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 evolved. Scientists can use the data obtained by the telescope to determine whether the atmosphere contains methane, carbon dioxide, or carbon monoxide.

The gases in these alien atmospheres may disclose the basic elements of life.

Observing the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, actively forming planetary systems, bright quasars at the center of galaxies, and Kuiper Belt Objects, which are leftovers from the formation of our solar system, are among the other objects of interest for the initial science campaign.

What it's capable of

Engineering Webb was a huge challenge, 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 primarily be used for picture capture or spectroscopy, which is the process of breaking down light into distinct wavelengths in order to determine physical and chemical components.

The Optical Telescope Element, or main 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 actually a bus.

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

The Webb space telescope flying into space away from the rocket that launched it on Saturday.Credit...NASA TV via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

When can we expect to see the first images?

The observatory will travel for roughly a month before arriving at a distance of about 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 parts 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 pivotal moment -- this is just the beginning for the Webb mission."

"Now we will watch Webb's highly anticipated and critical 29 days on the edge. When the spacecraft unfurls in space, Webb will undergo the most difficult and complex deployment sequence ever attempted in space. Once commissioning is complete, we will see awe-inspiring images that will capture our imagination."

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, he said, "The initial 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 amazing science that will be shared with the global community will be audacious and profound."

With this lunch, Astronomers will begin to glimpse the universe in a new light next summer if all goes well. They're most excited for something they weren't expecting. As Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said recently: “Every time we launch a big bold telescope, we get a surprise. This one is the biggest and boldest yet.”

However, if something goes wrong in the coming weeks and months, astronomy's understanding of the origins of existence may be jeopardized. When issues with the Hubble Space Telescope slowed its work in the 1990s, NASA dispatched astronauts aboard space shuttles to undertake repairs. The Webb telescope is on its way to a location beyond the moon where no human spacecraft has ever traveled (although Ms. Melroy says NASA has contemplated a robotic repair mission if one were needed).

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