Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary instrument built to peer the farthest yet into the cosmos, was launched by rocket on Saturday from South America’s north-eastern coast, opening a much anticipated new era of astronomical exploration.
The powerful US$9-billion infrared telescope, hailed by Nasa as the premiere space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 2.20pm South African time from the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) launch base in French Guiana.
The launch was carried live on a joint Nasa-ESA webcast — watch the replay above.
The 6.3 tonne instrument was released from the French-built rocket after a 26-minute ride into space and will gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward.
Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1.6 million kilometres from Earth — about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb’s special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.
By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from 550km away, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow every 90 minutes.
Named after the man who oversaw Nasa through most of its formative decade of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to transform scientists’ understanding of the universe and our place in it.
Webb mainly will view the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through clouds of gas and dust where stars are being born, while Hubble has operated primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
The new telescope’s primary mirror —consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal — also has a much bigger light-collecting area, enabling it to observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back into time, than Hubble or any other telescope.
That, astronomers say, will bring into view a glimpse of the cosmos never previously seen — dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set in motion the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
Hubble’s view reached back to roughly 400 million years following the Big Bang, revealing objects that Webb will be able to re-examine with far greater clarity.
Aside from examining the formation of the earliest stars in the universe, astronomers are eager to study super-massive black holes believed to occupy the centers of distant galaxies.
Webb’s instruments also make it ideal to search for evidence of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets — celestial bodies orbiting distant stars — and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.
Astronomical operation of the telescope, to be managed from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is expected to begin in the northern hemisphere summer of 2022, following about six months of alignment and calibration of Webb’s mirrors and instruments.
It is then that Nasa expects to release the initial batch of images captured by Webb, though scientists are keeping mum about where precisely they plan to point the telescope first. Webb is designed to last up to 10 years. — (c) 2021 Reuters