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Launch of a space telescope on a daring quest to contemplate the first stars

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This combination of images from an animation made available by NASA in December 2021 shows the unfolding of the components of the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb is so big it had to be folded origami-style to fit into the nose cone of the Ariane rocket. (NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Imagery Lab via AP)

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The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope took to the skies on Saturday on a high-stakes quest to see light from the first stars and galaxies and roam the universe for clues of life.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope took off from French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America, riding a European Ariane rocket in the Christmas morning sky.

The $ 10 billion observatory rushed to its destination 1.6 million kilometers, more than four times beyond the moon. It will take a month to get there and another five months before his infrared eyes are ready to start scanning the cosmos.

First, the huge mirror and the telescope’s lens hood must deploy; they were folded like an origami to fit into the nose cone of the rocket. Otherwise, the observatory will not be able to go back in time 13.7 billion years as expected, barely 100 million years after the formation of the Big Bang universe.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Webb is a time machine that will provide “a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, research which is eternal “.

“We are going to discover incredible things that we never imagined,” Nelson said after take off, speaking from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. But he cautioned: “There are still countless things that have to work and they have to work perfectly… we know that in a great reward there is a great risk.”

Designed to succeed the aging Hubble Space Telescope, the long-delayed James Webb is named after NASA’s administrator in the 1960s. NASA has partnered with European and Canadian space agencies to build and launch the new telescope of 7 tonnes, with thousands of people from 29 countries working there since the 1990s.

With the launch falling on Christmas and a worldwide increase in COVID-19 cases, there were fewer spectators at the French Guiana launch site than expected. Nelson bowed out with a delegation from Congress and many contractors who worked on the telescope.

Astronomers around the world have been eagerly awaiting to see Webb finally take off after years of setbacks. Last minute technical issues rocked the launch for almost a week, then gusts of wind pushed it over Christmas.

Cheers and applause erupted inside and outside of Launch Control after Webb’s flawless launch, with jubilant scientists kissing amid screams of “Go Webb!” “And signs indicating:” Bon Voyage Webb. Some of the inspectors were wearing Santa hats. The cameras on the rocket’s upper stage gave a final glimpse of the glittering telescope, before it took off.

“Today we delivered a Christmas present to humanity,” said Director General of the European Space Agency Josef Aschbacher. He described it as a special moment, but added, “It’s very nerve-racking. I couldn’t do launches every day. It wouldn’t be good for my life expectancy.

The centerpiece of the telescope: a gold-plated mirror over 6.5 meters in diameter.

The observatory shield is a five-layer vaporous sun visor, essential for keeping the light collecting mirror and heat-sensitive infrared detectors at sub-zero temperatures. At 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters), it is the size of a tennis court.

If all goes well, the sunshade will be open three days after take-off, taking at least five days to unfold and lock into place. Then the mirror segments should open like the leaves of a drop-leaf table, about 12 days after the flight begins.

In total, hundreds of trigger mechanisms must work – perfectly – for the telescope to be successful. “Like nothing we’ve done before,” said NASA program director Greg Robinson.

Retired astronaut-astronomer Steven Hawley is more stressed for Webb than for Hubble, which he put into orbit from the space shuttle Discovery in 1990. That’s because Webb will be too far away to be rescued, as it was. needed when Hubble was found to be blurry. vision of a defective mirror.

Space repairs done by astronauts have turned Hubble into a beloved wonder that revolutionized humanity’s understanding of the universe, casting its eyes 13.4 billion years ago. It’s now up to Webb to get even closer to the Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, its infrared vision thinner and wider than Hubble’s in the shortest visible and ultraviolet wavelengths.

NASA is pulling for 10 years of operational life from Webb. Engineers deliberately left the fuel tank accessible for refilling when visiting a spacecraft, if and when such technology became available.

When he released Hubble, “I never thought he would still be strong almost 32 years later,” Hawley, now a professor emeritus at the University of Kansas, said in an email. “I hope in 32 years we can say that JWST has done it too.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.