NASA's James Webb Space Telescope flew from French Guiana, South America's northeast coast, aboard a European Ariane rocket to the Christmas morning sky.
"What an incredible Christmas present," Thomas Zurbuchen (NASA's science mission chief) said.
The observatory, worth $10 billion, was speeding toward its destination at 1 million miles (1.6million kilometers) from Earth. This is more than four times the distance of the moon. It will take one month to reach the destination and five more months before its infrared eye can start scanning the cosmos.
First, the telescope's huge mirror and sunshield must be unfurled. They were folded origami-style in order to fit in the rocket's nose cone. The observatory will not be able to see back in time 13.7billion years, as expected, within 100 million years of Big Bang.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson described Webb as a time machine that will help us understand our universe and our place within it. Webb is "a better understanding of who we are, our purpose in it, and the search that's everlasting."
Nelson, speaking from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, said that "we are going to discover unbelievable things that we never thought of." He cautioned, however: "There are still many things that need to work and they must work perfectly...we know that great reward comes with great risk."
The James Webb, which was intended to be the successor to the aging Hubble space telescope, is named after NASA's 1960s administrator. NASA worked with Canadian and European space agencies to launch the 7-ton telescope. It was built by thousands of people from 29 different countries.
The launch fell on Christmas, and there was a worldwide surge in COVID-19 case cases, so there were less people at the French Guiana launch location than anticipated. Nelson, a congressional delegation, and many contractors who helped to build the telescope, bowed out.
Webb took off after many years of delays. Astronomers around the globe tuned in to watch. The launch was delayed by technical issues for nearly a week. However, the launch was pushed to Christmas by gusty winds. In celebration, a few launch controllers wore Santa caps.
Josef Aschbacher, director general of European Space Agency, said that "we have delivered a Christmas present today for humanity." It was a very special moment for him, but he added that it was nerve-racking. I could not do launches every day. This would be bad for my life expectancy.
After Webb's successful launch, cheers and applause broke out in and around Launch Control. Scientists embraced one another with shouts of "Go Webb!" as well as signs that said "Bon Voyage Webb."
The rocket's upper stage camera captured one final glimpse of the glowing telescope against the backdrop of Earth. Zurbuchen said to journalists, "That image will be burned in my mind forever."
The telescope's centerpiece: A mirror with a gold-plated finish measuring more than 21 feet (6.5 metres) in diameter.
A wispy five-layered sunshield protects the observatory. It is vital for maintaining the light-gathering mirror's temperature and the heat-sensing Infrared detectors below freezing. It measures 70 feet by 46 inches (21 meters by fourteen meters) and is the same size as a tennis court.
The sunshield can be opened after liftoff if all goes according to plan. It will take at least five days for the sunshield to unfold and lock in place. The mirror segments will open like drop-leaf leaves 12 days into the flight.
To make the telescope work, there are hundreds of release mechanisms that must all work perfectly. Greg Robinson, NASA program director, stated that such a complex set of actions is "unique" and "like nothing else we've ever done before."
Massimo Stiavelli (an astronomer and head of the Webb mission office at Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore) said that "now it's our responsibility to start from here" It serves as Hubble's control center and Webb's headquarters.
According to retired astronaut-astronomer Steven Hawley and Stiavelli, the Hubble Space Telescope will be difficult to follow, even though Webb's power is 100 times greater.
In fact, Hawley is more worried about Webb than he is for Hubble. Hubble was launched into orbit in 1990 from the spacecraft Discovery. Webb will not be able to be rescued, which is what was required when Hubble's blurry vision was due to a defective mirror.
Hubble's beloved spacewalking repair by astronauts has transformed it into a beloved marvel that revolutionized humanity’s understanding of the universe. It can now cast its eyes back to 13.4 billion years ago, thanks to spacewalking repairs. Webb now has the opportunity to get closer to the Big Bang of 13.8 billion years ago. Webb's infrared vision is sharper and further than Hubble's in the shorter visible wavelengths and ultraviolet wavelengths.
NASA has set a goal of 10 years of operation from Webb. The fuel tank was deliberately made accessible to engineers for top-offs by visiting spacecraft if such technology is available.
"Hubble is like a perfect story. It begins badly but then the cavalry makes it right and it becomes a huge success. After Webb's liftoff, Stiavelli stated that it was almost like a Christmas movie. It's not an easy task, but Webb's science contributions will be worthy.