NASA launches James Webb Space Telescope deep into space to see 'distant worlds' and back in time

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NASA launched its $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope Saturday in a flagship mission to find light from “first galaxies” and “distant worlds.”

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said that the “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,” he added in a statement. “I can’t wait to see what it uncovers!”

Webb’s mission melds the future of NASA to peering into the distant past. Astronomers hope to use the Webb to find light emitted 13.35 billion years ago from distant stars and galaxies – a mission that will quite literally help scientists look back in time.

The spacecraft was launched at 7:20 a.m. EST from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. 

Within five minutes of the telescope’s launch, ground teams began receiving telemetry data and 30 minutes into the million-mile flight the craft’s solar array successfully unfolded – providing power to the telescope.

A communication link with the observatory will be established by mission operators through the Malindi ground station in Kenya and the mission’s first commands will be sent through ground control at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

The spacecraft will be launched further into space after roughly 12 hours of flight time by ground controllers who will fire the observatory’s thrusters to propel it towards its orbit destination – 1 million miles from Earth.

“When the spacecraft unfurls in space, Webb will undergo the most difficult and complex deployment sequence ever attempted in space,” program director at NASA Headquarters in Washington, Gregory Robinson said. “Once commissioning is complete, we will see awe-inspiring images that will capture our imagination.”

The Webb spacecraft is the largest and most complex space observatory ever launched, and is expected to complete its voyage out to its orbit point to begin its 10-year mission in one month. It will unfurl its sunshield and its massive primary mirror, which is more than 6 times larger than Hubble’s primary mirror, and is expected to be able to begin science operations six months after launch. That’s when its exploration of the universe truly begins. 

Webb is anticipated to deliver images and study the infrared light from celestial objects from within our solar system, as well as in galaxies beyond, with much greater clarity than ever before.

A statement announcing the launch said the mission will help scientists “understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.”

“Webb’s scientific promise is now closer than it ever has been,” associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, Thomas Zurbuchen said. “We are poised on the edge of a truly exciting time of discovery, of things we’ve never before seen or imagined.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to the venerable Hubble Space Telescope, which is still exploring the universe after numerous servicing missions and more than three decades in low-earth orbit. Like its predecessor, the Webb’s science operations will be managed at the Space Telescope Science Institute, on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. 

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