A new era in astronomy is underway, with the successful launch today of the world’s most powerful space telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope blasted off safely early this morning after long delays and great anticipation.
The telescope was launched by an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana at 7:20 a.m. ET on Saturday, December 25. It is a joint collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, and is intended as a successor to the beloved Hubble Space Telescope. For now, Hubble will continue operations, gathering data primarily in the visible light wavelength, while James Webb will focus mostly on observations in the infrared wavelength.
James Webb is armed with cutting-edge science instruments and, as it does not have to peer through the atmosphere of Earth as ground-based telescopes do, it will be able to see cosmic phenomena in greater detail than ever before. This will allow it to be used to perform research on a wide variety of topics, from examining black holes, to looking at some of the most ancient galaxies, to investigating exoplanets to see whether they have atmospheres.
“Its scientific promise is breathtaking,” wrote Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, this summer. “Discoveries ranging from imaging the first galaxies in the universe, analyzing the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars in our galaxy, and even making discoveries in our solar system — the Webb space telescope is a dream come true for astronomers and science fans alike.”
Before Webb can begin its scientific explorations, however, the telescope needs to be positioned and its instruments checked. Within a week the telescope will unfold its tennis-court-sized sunshield which will protect the telescope from the heat and radiation of the sun. The telescope is currently traveling through space on its way to its final location orbiting the sun, in a position called the second Lagrange point.
Webb will then need to test out its instruments, which will be turned on one at a time. The telescope’s mirrors also need to be adjusted, and Webb should be able to capture high-quality images within a few months. With the instruments check and calibrated, Webb should be able to begin its science mission in around six months’ time.