The dreams and work of a generation of astronomers aim to orbit the sun on Saturday in the form of the largest and most expensive space observatory ever built. The James Webb Space Telescope, a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, lifts off from a spaceport near the Equator in Kourou, French Guiana, a pillar of fire and The smoky smoke began a million-mile journey to the morning of time.
“The world has given us this telescope and we are giving it back to the world today,” said Gregory Robinson, program director of the Webb telescope.
The telescope, named after the NASA administrator who led the space agency during the early years of the Apollo program, is designed to see farther into space and go back in time farther than ever before. The Hubble Space Telescope is lauded. Its main light-gathering mirror is 21 feet across, about three times larger than Hubble, and seven times more sensitive.
Webb’s mission is to find the earliest, most distant stars and galaxies, which appeared 13.7 billion years ago, out of the mist left over from the Big Bang (which occurred 13.8 billion years ago). five).
Astronomy lovers watching the launch from afar from around the world, many zooming together in their pajamas, were delighted.
“What an incredible Christmas present,” says Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Tod Lauer from the National Science Foundation’s NOIRLab, in an email exchange with other astronomers reported his feelings on the launch: “Just enjoy the most sacred of all the words in space. space, “Nominal! ,” he said, referring to jargon used by launch teams to describe rockets performing as expected.
Alan Dressler, a Carnegie Observatory astronomer and one of the founders of the Webb telescope project, responded: “Hallelujah! – another sacred word for the moment, Tod. ”
Priyamvada Natarajan, a cosmologist at Yale, emailed from India to describe herself as “Absolutely super excited! – Oh! Oh!”
In Baltimore at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the headquarters for Webb’s mission operations, a small group of scientists and NASA officials broke out into shouts of joy and applause. in the launch ceremony.
The flight crew in another part of the institute then watched as Webb deployed its solar array, then its communications antenna a few minutes later. About 100 mission personnel will direct the spacecraft’s deployment, which rotates 12 to 24 hours a day as it begins its journey to a point beyond the moon.
“They have a lot of work to do,” said Kenneth Sembach, director of the institute. “Our teams have spent the last two years doing a lot of drills.”
Equipped with detectors sensitive to infrared or “thermal radiation”, the telescope will paint the universe in colors never before seen by the human eye. The expansion of the universe shifts visible light from the earliest, most distant galaxies to galaxies with longer infrared wavelengths.
Studying the heat from these newborn galaxies could provide important clues about when and how the supermassive black holes located at the centers of galaxies form, astronomers say. Closer to its current home, the telescope will sniff the atmospheres of planets orbiting nearby stars, looking for infrared signatures of elements and molecules associated with life, such as oxygen and water.
According to astronomers, Webb will look at all of the history of the universe, its billions of years – from the first stars to have life in the solar system. This week, NASA administrator Bill Nelson called the telescope a “keyhole of the past”.
“It is a shining example of what we can achieve when we dream big,” he said. After launch, he said, “It’s been a great day for planet Earth.”
The beginning of the telescope’s journey went unnoticed by the space agency’s managers in Congress, who have been with the project for decades now.
“Today’s successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope marks a historic milestone in our advancement in astrophysics and space science,” said Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, Party Member Democrat of Texas and chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.
Saturday’s successful launch marked an expensive endeavor spanning more than 25 years of uncertainty, error and ingenuity. Webb’s 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors, an advanced temperature controller, and a super-sensitive infrared sensor have been brought together in a development timeline that surpasses cost and technical barriers. Engineers had to invent 10 new technologies to make the telescope much more sensitive than Hubble.
When NASA selected Northrop Grumman to lead the construction of Webb in 2002, mission managers estimated that it would cost between $1 billion and $3.5 billion and launch in 2010. Over-optimistic schedules, sporadic development crashes, and disorganized expense reporting dragged the timeline to 2021 and increased total costs to $10 billion.
Even its final lap to the launch pad looks dangerous as an incident in the Kourou rocket bay, disconnected cables, and worrisome weather reports have pushed Webb’s departure date back. more than December, until a launch on Christmas morning could not be avoided.
“I am very happy today,” said Josef Aschbacher, Director General of the European Space Agency. But he added, “It’s so stressful, I can’t debut every day, which is not good for my longevity.”
For astronomers and engineers, the launch was also a thrilling sight.
“Last night was hard to sleep,” said Adam Riess, astrophysicist and Nobel laureate, who will use the Webb telescope to measure the rate of expansion of the universe.
“It’s 7am on Christmas and I wake up and everyone is excited—is this what having a baby is like?” Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, wrote on Twitter. They added, “Horrible, I’m going to sleep again,” which they confirmed in an email, which they did, but not before the solar array was deployed.
But the launch itself is only the first step in an even more arduous journey that astronomers and rocket engineers have called a “six months of anxiety.”
The half-hour in-flight solar panel deployment is the first in a month-long series of operations and deployments with what NASA calls “344 unique points of failure.”
“I can finally start breathing again when the solar arrays appear,” said Pam Melroy, deputy administrator for NASA. “We’ve got a lot of tough days ahead, but you can’t even start any of it until this part is perfect.”
Among the most intense moments will be the introduction of a giant sunroof, about the size of a tennis court, designed to keep the telescope in the dark, astronomers say. cold enough that its own heat doesn’t overwhelm the heat from distant stars. . The screen is made of five layers of plastic called Kapton, which is similar to mylar and as fragile as mylar. It sometimes gets ripped off during deployment maneuvers.
If all goes well, astronomers will begin to see the universe in a new light next summer. They are most looking forward to what they do not expect. As Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s deputy director of science, said recently: “Every time we launch a bold large telescope, we get a surprise. This is the biggest and boldest. “
But if something goes wrong in the coming weeks and months, astronomy’s view of the origin of existence could suffer. When problems arose with Hubble’s work in the 1990s, NASA sent astronauts in the space shuttle to do the repair work. The Webb Telescope headed to a point beyond the moon where no human spacecraft had been before (though Ms. Melroy said NASA had contemplated robot repair mission necessary).
Dr Riess said: “I tell my friends who are not astronomers that, after launch, you almost don’t want to hear about another 30 days. “And we’d be really happy if we didn’t hear anything.”
Dennis Overbye is reported from New York, and Joey Roulette from Baltimore.
https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/25/science/james-webb-telescope-launch.html The James Webb Space Telescope launched on Journey to See the Dawn of the Stars