The James Webb Space Telescope is now officially the largest telescope ever to be launched into space. On Christmas morning – after a decade of delays – Webb was launched at 7:20 a.m. on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.
Webb is the product of 40 million hours of work by thousands of scientists from around the globe. The world’s most complex space observatory will now begin six months of commissioning in space. After this time, Webb will deliver its first images.
“Webb’s launch is a pivotal moment that exemplifies the dedication, innovation, and ambition behind NASA and its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA), but it is only the beginning,” said NASA.
“The 29 days following liftoff will be an exciting but harrowing time. Thousands of parts must work correctly, in sequence, to unfold Webb and put it in its final configuration, all while it flies through the expanse of space alone, to a destination nearly one million miles away.”
Equipped with highly sensitive infrared detectors of unprecedented resolution, Webb will study infrared light from celestial objects with remarkable clarity.
Researchers at the University of Queensland will use Webb to observe asteroids and newborn planets, as well as black holes in distant galaxies.
UQ astrophysicist Dr Benjamin Pope said he is excited by the capabilities of the telescope, which is widely considered as the successor to the famed Hubble Space Telescope (HST) launched in 1990.
“The JWST will go dramatically beyond what any telescope has been able to do – it will see some of the first stars in the universe, billions of light years away,” said Dr. Pope.
“By looking at exoplanets as they transit, it will measure their atmospheric composition and detect water and other molecules that could indicate planets capable of sustaining life. It changes the game on how we observe planets, stars, asteroids, and the universe around us.”
“One of the main benefits of a space telescope such as the JWST is that it overcomes one of the biggest problems facing astronomers – the atmosphere blocking their view of the wider universe. Such a powerful space telescope will put us on the doorstep of some incredible discoveries.”
Professor Holger Baumgardt will use the JWST for a series of observation projects aimed at identifying and studying black holes in distant galaxies. “Specifically, we’ll be searching for supermassive black holes in the centers of nearby galaxies.”
“Our aim is to understand the relationship between the mass of both black holes and the galaxies that host them and learn how these supermassive black holes formed.”
Dr. Pope said the future of astronomy looks bright, with answers to some of astronomy’s most important questions within reach.
“JWST will give us a clearer picture of the origins of our own Solar System, and our best ever glimpses of the other weird and wonderful systems of planets in the Galaxy.”
According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, the James Webb Space Telescope represents the ambition that NASA and our partners maintain to propel us forward into the future. “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe. I can’t wait to see what it uncovers!”
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer