James Webb Telescope Launch Brings Our Knowledge of Space to New Heights

Cosette Jo, Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of Pixaby.

It was 7:20 a.m. this past Christmas when the James Webb Space Telescope was finally launched. After over 20 years, the ten billion dollar project was coming to fruition, hitching a ride on an Ariane 5 rocket as it lifted off in billowing clouds of smoke and a roaring trail of fire. The long-awaited space observatory was at last beginning its journey — one that goes back through 13.5 billion years and nearly a million miles of space to explore the dark ages of cosmic history.

The launch from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guinea had been much anticipated. Originally planned for 2007, the event experienced delay after delay and even threat of cancellation. According to NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope site, the structure has a mass of 6,500 kilograms (corresponds to 14,300 pounds) and a tennis-court-sized sunshield. It’s not hard to imagine the challenges of a mission that takes a complicated instrument of that magnitude and positions it at an unserviceable distance should malfunctions occur.

An image of a star taken by the telescope.
Photo courtesy of NASA.

Nevertheless, all operations since the launch are proceeding relatively as planned. Resembling a giant honeycomb, Webb’s primary mirror measures 6.5 meters across (21.3 feet), consisting of 18 foldable segments that can fold up to fit into a rocket. Huge yet lightweight, this structure will be used to capture light from the universe’s first stars and galaxies during a period of time called cosmic dawn, an era from which details have remained elusive to scientists. Unlike the Hubble, Webb will observe mainly in the infrared. This, along with its orbiting the Sun rather than Earth in an area called the second Lagrange point, will allow the telescope to see celestial objects obscured by dust clouds.

Despite the milestone of the launch, those anticipating an inpouring of dazzling space images will still have to wait several more months as the telescope aligns and tests are run. The plan is for showpiece images to be released sometime in the early summer. In the meantime, viewers can track Webb’s progress through a series of firsts — first photons detected, first images released, first orbit — and relish history in the making.