Space telescope launched on daring quest to behold 1st stars

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In this image released by NASA, Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, lifts off Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, at Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. The $10 billion infrared observatory is intended as the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA via AP)

The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope rocketed away Saturday on a high-stakes quest to behold light from the first stars and galaxies and scour the universe for hints of life.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope soared from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast, riding a European Ariane rocket into the Christmas morning sky.

“What an amazing Christmas present,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief.

The $10 billion observatory hurtled toward its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away, or more than four times beyond the moon. It will take a month to get there and another five months before its infrared eyes are ready to start scanning the cosmos.

First, the telescope’s enormous mirror and sunshield need to unfurl; they were folded origami-style to fit into the rocket’s nose cone. Otherwise, the observatory won’t be able to peer back in time 13.7 billion years as anticipated, within a mere 100 million years of the universe-forming Big Bang.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson called Webb a time machine that will provide “a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that’s eternal.”

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

Intended as a successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope, the long-delayed James Webb is named after NASA’s administrator during the 1960s. NASA partnered with the European and Canadian space agencies to build and launch the new 7-ton telescope, with thousands of people from 29 countries working on it since the 1990s.

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

Around the world, astronomers and countless others tuned in, anxious to see Webb finally taking flight after years of setbacks. Last-minute technical snags bumped the launch nearly a week, then gusty wind pushed it to Christmas. A few of the launch controllers wore Santa caps in celebration.

“We have delivered a Christmas gift today for humanity,” said European Space Agency director general Josef Aschbacher. He described it as a special moment, but added: “It’s very nerve-racking. I couldn’t do launches every single day. This would not be good for my life expectancy.”

Cheers and applause erupted in and outside Launch Control following Webb’s flawless launch, with jubilant scientists embracing one another amid shouts of “Go Webb!” and signs that read: “Bon Voyage Webb.”

Cameras on the rocket’s upper stage provided one last glimpse of the shimmering telescope against a backdrop of Earth, before it sped away. “That picture will be burned into my mind forever,” Zurbuchen told journalists.

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