James Webb space telescope launched by Nasa on $10bn voyage ‘to edge of time itself’

The launch precedes a delicate origami-like unfolding process of the 344 parts that would make the telescope operational

Adam Smith,Aisha Rimi
Saturday 25 December 2021 15:00
Nasa launches James Webb telescope into space in historic lift-off.mp4

Nasa has successfully launched the James Webb space telescope into orbit, giving scientists the opportunity to peer back further into the universe’s history than ever before.

The telescope launched on top of a European Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou, French Guiana site in South America, on 25 December. Initially scheduled for Christmas Eve, the launch was postponed by a day due to a forecast of high winds at the spaceport.

As the rocket launched, Nasa spokesman Rob Navias said: “Lift-off, from a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe.”

The event was livestreamed on the Nasa website.

Preparation for the project began in 1996, and construction was completed in 2016.

There are still a number of stages to go through until the telescope is operational: a complex unfurling procedure must be completed that will last for up to two weeks. Eventually, the craft will be one million miles from our planet.

There are 344 parts that need to be unfolded remotely, in an incredibly complex procedure that the space agency has never attempted before. Many of the mechanisms have no backup, so should any problem arise the entire endeavour could come to an end.

The enormous, $10bn (£7.5bn) telescope will work in tandem with the Hubble space telescope, but is much larger than its 31-year-old predecessor. The 6.5m mirror on the James Webb telescope is more than twice that of Hubble’s 2.4m, making it between 10 and 100 times more sensitive than the older craft.

The mirror is made of 18 hexagonal segments of beryllium, and is covered by a 21m by 14m shade to keep its scientific instruments at a constant temperature of -240C in order to function properly.

Webb will attempt to look back in time 13.7 billion years, a mere 100 million years after the universe-forming Big Bang as the original stars were taking shape. Scientists are eager to see how closely, if at all, these initial galaxies resemble our modern day Milky Way.

Between five and 10 years of observations are expected from the telescope, which will be managed by The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“Personally, I think that even with all of the hype, the Webb will still exceed expectations,” the institute’s Ori Fox said a few days before launch. “Many of what are considered Hubble’s most inspiring discoveries were not part of the original plan.”

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