It was an anxious morning at the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana, where the $ 10 billion James Webb telescope was ready for launch aboard an Ariane rocket. At 12:20 GMT, after years of delays and budget extensions, lift-off began, followed by a grueling half hour until James Webb arrived in space amid cheers and ovations. It was the easy part, however. Over the course of two hellish weeks, the telescope will undertake a series of risky deployment maneuvers that will keep mission engineers on their toes throughout this critical time.
The giant space telescope developed by NASA, in collaboration with European and Canadian space agencies, is the successor to Hubble, which, over the past three decades, has made monumental contributions to science, such as fixing the age of l universe at 13.8 billion years old and help determine the speed at which it is developing.
Webb, named after one of the architects of the Apollo missions who brought astronauts to the moon, is the largest and most powerful space telescope in history. It’s about 100 times more powerful than Hubble, thanks to a 6.5-meter gold mirror that’s nearly three times the size of Hubble’s main reflector, allowing scientists to peer inside the early cosmos.
The speed of light, the limit speed of the universe, is fixed. So the stars we see in the night sky appear as they once did at the very moment the photons were emitted perhaps millions, if not billions of years ago. Since the infrared telescope can see objects farther and fainter than the previous state of the art, Webb can be thought of as a kind of time machine that allows astronomers to study the evolution of the world. universe, from humble beginnings to the present day. This also includes the movement of galaxies, which could finally reveal the nature of the very elusive dark matter that is believed to be responsible for the accelerated expansion of the universe.
Indeed, Webb should be able to see the light of the very first stars that appeared around 13.5 billion years ago. In these pioneering stellar nurseries, the first heavy elements were forged. These include carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus, without which life as we know it would not have been possible. We are all stardust, after all.
Speaking of life, Webb’s impressive reach means that astronomers will soon be able to image and analyze the atmosphere of distant planets several light years away. Some can be habitable.
But before any of these extraordinary feats are possible, the James Webb Telescope will have to overcome many challenges. Its observation post is located almost 1.5 million kilometers away, where it is very cold. It is not a random place. At -223 degrees Celsius, the telescope virtually stops emitting infrared frequencies that carry heat, which could obstruct and scramble the infrared of far distant cosmic objects.
It will take around a month for Webb to reach its position and become fully operational, but the next two weeks are particularly critical. The telescope has been expertly folded like a giant origami to fit inside the nose of the Ariane rocket. The downside is that all of these components have to be deployed and if one motor gets stuck, the entire telescope could end up becoming the most expensive space debris ever.
The mission engineers will first deploy the huge mirror, made up of 18 gold-plated beryllium hexagons, as well as its special Kapton shield intended to block the light of the sun, the Earth and the moon, thus keeping it at bay. costs.
“It will give us a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that is eternal,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said earlier this week. , adding that “when you want a big reward, you usually have to take a big risk.
Once deployed to its stationary observation location, known as L2, mission operators will turn on various electronic and scientific instruments. Calibration will continue for another five months, so in six months astronomers hope to have access to Webb’s very first observations.
“We are launching for humanity this morning,” said Arianespace general manager, Stéphane Israël, a few minutes before takeoff. “After Webb, we’ll never see the sky the same way again.”