UNITED STATES NEWS

Space telescope launched on daring quest to behold 1st stars

Dec 25, 2021, 2:00 PM | Updated: Dec 27, 2021, 2:49 pm

The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope rocketed away Saturday on a high-stakes quest to behold light from the first stars and galaxies and scour the universe for hints of life.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope soared from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast, riding a European Ariane rocket into the Christmas morning sky.

“What an amazing Christmas present,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief.

The $10 billion observatory hurtled toward its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away, or more than four times beyond the moon. It will take a month to get there and another five months before its infrared eyes are ready to start scanning the cosmos.

First, the telescope’s enormous mirror and sunshield need to unfurl; they were folded origami-style to fit into the rocket’s nose cone. Otherwise, the observatory won’t be able to peer back in time 13.7 billion years as anticipated, within a mere 100 million years of the universe-forming Big Bang.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called Webb a time machine that will provide “a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that’s eternal.”

“We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined,” Nelson said following liftoff, speaking from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. But he cautioned: “There are still innumerable things that have to work and they have to work perfectly … we know that in great reward there is great risk.”

Intended as a successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, the long-delayed James Webb is named after NASA’s administrator during the 1960s. NASA partnered with the European and Canadian space agencies to build and launch the new 7-ton telescope, with thousands of people from 29 countries working on it since the 1990s.

With the launch falling on Christmas and a global surge in COVID-19 cases, there were fewer spectators at the French Guiana launch site than expected. Nelson bowed out along with a congressional delegation and many contractors who worked on the telescope.

Around the world, astronomers and countless others tuned in, anxious to see Webb finally taking flight after years of setbacks. Last-minute technical snags bumped the launch nearly a week, then gusty wind pushed it to Christmas. A few of the launch controllers wore Santa caps in celebration.

“We have delivered a Christmas gift today for humanity,” said European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher. He described it as a special moment, but added: “It’s very nerve-racking. I couldn’t do launches every single day. This would not be good for my life expectancy.”

Cheers and applause erupted in and outside Launch Control following Webb’s flawless launch, with jubilant scientists embracing one another amid shouts of “Go Webb!” and signs that read: “Bon Voyage Webb.”

Cameras on the rocket’s upper stage provided one last glimpse of the shimmering telescope against a backdrop of Earth, before it sped away. “That picture will be burned into my mind forever,” Zurbuchen told journalists.

The telescope’s showpiece: a gold-plated mirror more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) across.

Protecting the observatory is a wispy, five-layered sunshield, vital for keeping the light-gathering mirror and heat-sensing infrared detectors at subzero temperatures. At 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters), it’s the size of a tennis court.

If all goes well, the sunshield will be opened three days after liftoff, taking at least five days to unfold and lock into place. Next, the mirror segments should open up like the leaves of a drop-leaf table, 12 days or so into the flight.

In all, hundreds of release mechanisms need to work — perfectly — in order for the telescope to succeed. Such a complex series of actions is unprecedented — “like nothing we’ve done before,” noted NASA program director Greg Robinson.

“Now it’s our job to start from here and keep going,” said Massimo Stiavelli, an astronomer who heads the Webb mission office at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. The institute serves as the control hub for Hubble and, now, Webb.

The Hubble Space Telescope will be a tough act to follow, according to Stiavelli and retired astronaut-astronomer Steven Hawley, even though Webb is 100 times more powerful.

Hawley, in fact, is more stressed over Webb than he was for Hubble, which he released into orbit from space shuttle Discovery in 1990. That’s because Webb will be too far away for rescuing, as was necessary when Hubble turned out to have blurry vision from a defective mirror.

Spacewalking repairs by astronauts transformed Hubble into a beloved marvel that has revolutionized humanity’s understanding of the universe, casting its eyes as far back as 13.4 billion years. It’s now up to Webb to draw even closer to the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, its infrared vision keener and more far-reaching than Hubble’s is in the shorter visible and ultraviolet wavelengths.

NASA is shooting for 10 years of operational life from Webb. Engineers deliberately left the fuel tank accessible for a top-off by visiting spacecraft, if and when such technology becomes available.

“Hubble is like the perfect story. It starts badly, then the cavalry fixes it, then it’s a major success. It’s almost a Christmas movie in a way,” Stiavelli said following Webb’s liftoff. “It’s a high bar, but hopefully the science contributions of Webb will be up there.”

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Lifetime Windows & Doors

United States News

Associated Press

Environmental justice advocates slam Supreme Court ruling

The Supreme Court decision to limit how the Environmental Protection Agency regulates carbon dioxide emissions from power plants could make an already grave situation worse for those affected most by climate change and air pollution, advocates say. Environmental and climate justice advocates from across the United States are decrying the court’s 6-3 ruling, saying it […]
10 hours ago
The late Sen. John McCain and former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords were selected to receive the Presiden...
Kevin Stone

John McCain, Gabby Giffords to receive Presidential Medal of Freedom

A prominent pair of Arizona political figures, the late Sen. John McCain and former Rep. Gabby Giffords, will be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom next week.
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Bear cub rescued after getting head stuck in plastic jug

HARWINTON, Conn. (AP) — Wildlife biologists in Connecticut had to rescue a bear cub that got its head stuck in a plastic container, state wildlife officials said. The misadventure happened June 23 when a mother bear with three cubs knocked over a garbage can in the town of Harwinton in Litchfield County, and one of […]
10 hours ago
This photo provided by Panned Parenthood of Maryland shows Dr. Kyle Bukowski, the chief medical off...
Associated Press

Maryland law expanding who can perform abortion takes effect

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland law taking effect Friday will enable nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants who receive special training to perform abortions, as some states seek to expand access to the procedure after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Medical professionals other than physicians with the training can begin providing […]
10 hours ago
This photo provided by Panned Parenthood of Maryland shows Dr. Kyle Bukowski, the chief medical off...
Associated Press

Maryland law expanding who can perform abortion takes effect

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — A Maryland law taking effect Friday will enable nurse practitioners, nurse midwives and physician assistants who receive special training to perform abortions, as some states seek to expand access to the procedure after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Medical professionals other than physicians with the training can begin providing […]
10 hours ago
Associated Press

Essence Festival allowing negative COVID tests for admission

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — In a major reversal of policy, the 2022 Essence Festival of Culture said Friday that it will allow attendees to show a negative COVID test result for admission to its ticketed concerts in the Superdome and other events. Previously, Essence had said proof of a COVID vaccination was mandatory for admission. […]
10 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

(Courtesy Condor)...
Condor Airlines

Condor Airlines shows passion for destinations from Sky Harbor with new-look aircraft

Condor Airlines brings passion to each flight and connects people to their dream destinations throughout the world.
...
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
...
Arizona Division of Problem Gambling

Arizona Division of Problem Gambling provides exclusion solution for young sports bettors

Sports betting in Arizona opened a new world to young adults, one where putting down money on games was as easy as sending a text message.
Space telescope launched on daring quest to behold 1st stars