Highlights From the James Webb Space Telescope’s Long-Awaited Launch

In French Guiana, the most powerful space observatory ever built lifted off Christmas morning.,

Dec. 25, 2021, 10:35 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 10:35 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

Did you miss the launch? You can watch it here:

Dec. 25, 2021, 10:00 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 10:00 a.m. ET

By Noah Pisner

The New York Times Instagram Story about the James Webb space telescope.Credit…The New York Times

To understand the observation powers of the James Webb Space Telescope and how it will assist astronomers in their research, try these two augmented reality experiences in your own space with a smartphone logged into Instagram.

The first will show you where in space and time the Webb will look with a 3-D map of the observable universe. It plots some of the spacecraft’s early targets, including potentially Earthlike exoplanets and the earliest known galaxies. Try it here on Instagram.

The second augmented reality experience shows how the Webb will get a visual boost from the power of gravitational lensing.

Place a virtual black hole in your space and watch how it behaves like a magnifying glass on your surroundings. This same technique will help astronomers study the early universe. Try it here on Instagram.

Dec. 25, 2021, 9:50 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 9:50 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

Where is the Webb now? While there’s no Google Maps in space, yet, NASA did create a website that will give you an approximation of where the telescope is on its million-mile journey.

Dec. 25, 2021, 9:30 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 9:30 a.m. ET
If a step during deployment goes wrong, mission managers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore would pause the deployment process and determine a new way to proceed.Credit…Jim Watson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Once Webb launches, everything is controlled remotely by engineers and astronomers on Earth. If something goes wrong during its five- to 10-year mission, astronauts will not be able to rendezvous with the telescope like they did in the past with Hubble, which is less than half the distance from Earth than Webb will be.

Webb has 344 “single points of failure” along its complex deployment process. If a step during deployment goes wrong, or if something appears off, mission managers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore would pause the deployment process and determine a new way to proceed.

But should a problem arise that would require repair, a robotic spacecraft could be sent to get the job done, Pam Melroy, NASA’s deputy administrator, said in an interview.

“Have we talked about it? Oh yes we have talked about it,” said Ms. Melroy, whose previous job leading the tactical technology office at DARPA, the Pentagon’s research and development agency, made her a “big fan of robotic servicing.”

“I think we could actually put something together that would allow us to send a refueler or a servicer out there,” she said. “It might take a few years to pull all that together.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 9:08 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 9:08 a.m. ET
An artist’s concept of the Trappist-1 system with the kind of exoplanets the Webb telescope may help study.Credit…JPL-Caltech/NASA

In the years since NASA and its partners began building the Webb telescope, astronomers have discovered more than 4,000 worlds that orbit other stars in our galaxy — so-called exoplanets. That’s a mere scratch at the surface, suggesting that there are at least as many planets as stars in the Milky Way. The big question is, do any of these worlds harbor life, or could they?

Astronomers using the Webb will have plenty of tools at their disposal to help probe the secrets of a few dozen of the closest exoplanets, as well as find more. The telescope is equipped with a coronagraph, which blocks out the brilliant glare of the central star in a distant planetary system so that the far less brilliant planets can be seen as dots orbiting the star. Spectroscopic studies of those dots can reveal what they are made of.

Likewise, when planets pass in front of their home star, their atmospheres are backlit by the star, allowing the researchers to use the telescope to search for the spectroscopic signatures of elements crucial to life, like oxygen, water and carbon dioxide, in the planet’s atmosphere.

Dec. 25, 2021, 9:08 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 9:08 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

During the post-launch news conference, Gregory Robinson, the Webb telescope’s program director, said “The world gave us this telescope and we’re handing it back to the world today.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 8:58 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 8:58 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

In a few minutes, NASA will stream a post-launch news conference. You can watch it in the video player above.

Dec. 25, 2021, 8:40 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 8:40 a.m. ET

One of the greatest mysteries in our universe is the existence of black holes — those doomster pits in space and time from which not even light can escape.

Many of them are the remnants of stars that collapsed and died. But every galaxy also seems to harbor supermassive black holes, millions or billions times more massive than the sun. These black holes announce their presence when they feed, manifesting themselves as quasars.

How did these supermassive monsters get there? Did they grow from the remains of the first stars, or were they leftovers from the Big Bang? And which came first — the galaxies or the black holes?

The Webb telescope may help astronomers answer these questions by studying the progression of stars and protogalaxies during the 300 million years missing from the cosmic record produced by Hubble, and looking for when quasars started turning up.

Dec. 25, 2021, 8:22 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 8:22 a.m. ET
The Hubble Space Telescope hovering at the boundary of Earth and space in this picture, taken after Hubble’s second servicing mission in 1997.Credit…NASA

The Webb telescope’s primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter, compared with Hubble’s, which is 2.4 meters, giving Webb about seven times as much light-gathering capability and thus the ability to see further into the past.

Another crucial difference is that Webb is equipped with cameras and other instruments sensitive to infrared, or “heat,” radiation. The expansion of the universe causes the light that would normally be in wavelengths that are visible to be shifted to longer infrared wavelengths that are normally invisible to human eyes.

On the other hand, the Hubble telescope is in low Earth orbit, where astronauts could visit and fix things that have broken or worn out, or install new, more powerful instruments on it. Those modifications extended its life years beyond the original estimates.

Dec. 25, 2021, 8:18 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 8:18 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

NASA’s live video stream has ended but we have more updates coming about the telescope and what it will accomplish.

Dec. 25, 2021, 8:11 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 8:11 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

“I’m so happy today,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency. But he added, “It’s very nerve racking, I couldn’t do launches every single day, this would not be good for my life expectancy.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 8:02 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 8:02 a.m. ET
NASA’s James Webb telescope secured on Dec. 11 atop the Ariane 5 rocket, which will launch it into space from Europe’s spaceport in French Guiana.Credit…M.Pedoussaut/European Space Agency, via Associated Press

Astronomers around the world will be watching (and perhaps biting their nails) as the Webb telescope undergoes a $10 billion, monthlong game of origami.

Tightly packed into a container atop the rocket during launch, the telescope will separate from the spacecraft in orbit after launch and spend 29 days unfolding various limbs and instruments. When it reaches its final form during its trek to a point nearly one million miles from Earth, it will blossom into a tennis court-size observatory, unfurling a large sun shield with a 21-foot-wide mirror in the center.

Webb’s solar panel array and antenna will spring out automatically within the first day. Everything after that will be controlled by mission managers on the ground, who will decide when to move forward with each subsequent deployment depending on how well the process is going.

Three days after launch, engineers will command two arms on each side of the telescope to fold down to support the telescope’s sun shield, which is 69 feet tall and 46 feet wide. The shield is a delicate five-layer blanket of thin, silvery plastic that will protect Webb’s scientific instruments from the sun’s heat. Two days after the arms unfold, the shield itself is expected to stretch out, spending two more days carefully tightening itself, a process engineers call tensioning.

Several other instruments will deploy throughout the process. Ten to 14 days after launch, the telescope’s primary mirrors will unfold and snap into place, forming its iconic beehive-like panel of gold-plated mirror segments, spanning 21 feet wide.

Twenty-nine days after launch, the telescope will reach its final destination, beyond the moon, straddling the gravitational forces of Earth and the sun. The deployment timeline could take longer, though, if mission managers decide to delay certain instrument deployments during the process.

Then, astronomers will spend six months testing communications and tweaking various settings before putting it to use, seeking ancient light from the universe’s earliest days.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:52 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:52 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

The solar array has been deployed, providing electric power to the spacecraft. Webb is on its own.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:48 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:48 a.m. ET

The dreams and work of a generation of astronomers headed for an orbit around the sun on Saturday in the form of the biggest and most expensive space-based observatory ever built. The James Webb Space Telescope, a joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, lifted off on Saturday morning from a spaceport near the Equator in Kourou, French Guiana, a teetering pillar of fire and smoke embarking on a million-mile trip to the morning of time.

“What an incredible Christmas present,” said Garth Illingworth, an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

The telescope, named for the NASA administrator who led the space agency through the early years of the Apollo program, will examine all of cosmic history, billions of years of it, astronomers say — from the first stars to life in the solar system.

About 27 minutes after launching, the telescope separated from its launch vehicle and began its journey to the spot beyond the moon where, if all goes well, it will begin its scientific mission.

“It was a perfect ride to orbit,” said Rob Navias, a NASA commentator on a live video stream, as a camera from the rocket showed the space telescope drifting away from the Earth.

The NASA administrator Bill Nelson called the telescope a “keyhole into the past.”

“It is a shining example of what we can accomplish when we dream big,” he said this week.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:41 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:41 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

Alan Dressler of Carnegie Observatory, who chaired the report that led to the Webb telescope wrote in an email to me: “I was very glad to hear the first words of the NASA broadcast emphasize that this is about OUR origins, not the origins of the universe, starting with the

big bang. That was a such a key part of our report — that was novel, and that was the source of inspiration for the project, I believe.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:38 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:38 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

Launch personnel in Kourou, pensively tracking the telescope’s trajectory some 130 miles above Earth right now, likely won’t celebrate until Webb separates from the rocket stage and deploys its solar array.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:35 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:35 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

Gravity, physicists tell us, is the weakest force in the universe. But I can never watch a launch like this without being startled by the violence we need to harness to get off the Earth.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:33 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:33 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

It went off exactly on time. A perfect ride so far.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:32 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:32 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

The telescope has separated from the main stage of the Ariane 5 rocket, and is beginning a cruise of about 15 more minutes as it prepares to begin its million-mile journey to the point beyond the moon where it will begin its scientific mission.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:26 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:26 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

The cameras on board the rocket just gave us the first glimpse of of the Webb telescope in space after the fairings were jettisoned.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:25 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:25 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

The fairings, the outer shell protecting the telescope, have been jettisoned.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:23 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:23 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

“Everything is ok, everything is normal,” a mission official says on the live stream as the Ariane 5 rocket ditches its solid rocket boosters, one of the first steps of the launch to space.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:22 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:22 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

Rob Navias of NASA just described the launch as: “From the edge of a tropical rain forest to the edge to time itself.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:21 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:21 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

Screams of joy, applause and hoorays as the $10 billion Webb telescope finally launches to space.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:20 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:20 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

It’s happenening. After all these years.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:20 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:20 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

About a minute from liftoff, the flight manager in Kourou, seen on NASA’s livestream, took a deep breath, looking focused ahead of launching the world’s most powerful space telescope.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:15 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:15 a.m. ET
The a test sunshield for the James Webb Space Telescope at a cleanroom in the Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, Calif., in 2014.Credit…NASA/Chris Gunn Photo, via Reuters

Building the world’s most powerful space telescope has been a bit difficult.

Webb’s 18 gold-plated hexagonal mirrors, advanced temperature controllers and ultrasensitive infrared sensors were pieced together in a development timeline filled with cost overruns and technical hurdles. Engineers had to invent 10 new technologies along the way to make the telescope far more sensitive than its predecessor, Hubble.

When NASA picked the Northrop Grumman company to lead Webb’s construction in 2002, mission managers estimated that it would cost $1 billion to $3.5 billion and launch to space in 2010. Over-optimistic schedule projections, occasional development accidents and disorganized cost reporting dragged the timeline out to 2021 and ballooned the overall cost to $10 billion.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:09 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:09 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

The Webb telescope has now transitioned to onboard power. 10 minutes to go.

Dec. 25, 2021, 7:07 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 7:07 a.m. ET

Michael Roston

Editing spaceflight coverage.

The weather report in Kourou, French Guiana, is good for launch in about 15 minutes.

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:59 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:59 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

“It was hard to sleep last night,” says Adam Reiss, an astrophysicist and Nobel laureate who will use the Webb telescope to measure the expansion rate of the universe. He tells me over the phone that he’s going to watch the launch with his family from home. “I was thinking this morning, JWST always represented the future to me. It’s weird that the future is actually going to launch today.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:56 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:56 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

After this morning we will never look at the universe the same, says St?phane Isra?l, the chief executive of Arianespace, which manages the Ariane 5 rocket that is carrying the Webb telescope.

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:48 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:48 a.m. ET
The former NASA administrator James E. Webb, right, with former President Harry S. Truman at the newly opened NASA headquarters in Washington in 1961.Credit…NASA

James Webb led NASA during the 1960s, when it was gearing up to land people on the moon.

After a fire killed three astronauts in 1967, he established the tradition that NASA would own up to its mistakes with transparent investigations; he was also a champion of space science in addition to human spaceflight.

In 2002, Sean O’Keefe, then the NASA administrator, announced that the next telescope would be named for Mr. Webb. Some astronomers were disappointed that it would not be named for an astronomer.

Other scientists have objected on other grounds, suggesting that Mr. Webb bore some responsibility for the purging of gay men and women who worked at the State Department during a period of the Truman administration known as the Lavender Scare. At the time, Mr. Webb was the under secretary of state.

NASA launched an investigation. Subsequently, Bill Nelson, the current administrator and former Florida senator, announced that he would not change the name. But some scientists have sustained their criticism of the telescope’s name, and one resigned from NASA advisory boards in protest.

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:40 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:40 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

About 40 minutes from scheduled launch of the Webb telescope in French Guiana, Rob Navias of NASA says, “Right now we have a green board – no issues as the countdown proceeds, no issues again being tracked by the flight control team here in Kourou.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:35 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:35 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

During NASA’s live video stream, the mission’s project scientist John Mather reminds us that we are made of stardust, but there was no stardust in the Big Bang. It had to be made in stars.

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:32 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:32 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

Ken Sembach, director of the institute, is hyping up a small crowd of scientists here in Baltimore as they stand by to watch live video of the telescope launching to space. “Science won’t be the same after today,” he says. “Webb is more than a telescope — it is a gift to everyone who contemplates the vastness of the universe.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:25 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:25 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

For the record my fingernails are still intact, but I know how the world’s anxious astronomers and engineers feel as my stomach is doing flip-flops ahead of this launch.

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:17 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:17 a.m. ET
Marcia Rieke, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who has been working on the design and build of the telescope’s ultrasensitive infrared camera.Credit…George Rieke

What do astronomers eat for breakfast on the day that their $10 billion telescope launches into space? Their fingernails.

“You work for years and it all goes up in a puff of smoke,” said Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona, who for 20 years has been working to design and build an ultrasensitive infrared camera that will live aboard the spacecraft.

An informal and totally unscientific survey of randomly chosen astronomers revealed a community sitting on the edges of their seats feeling nervous, proud and grateful for the team that has developed, built and tested the new telescope over the last quarter-century.

“I will almost certainly watch the launch and be terrified the entire time,” said Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, a professor of physics and gender studies at the University of New Hampshire.

And there is plenty to be anxious about. The Ariane 5 rocket that is carrying the spacecraft has seldom failed to deliver its payloads to orbit. But even if it survives the launch, the telescope will have a long way to go.

Over the following month it will have to execute a series of maneuvers with 344 “single points of failure” in order to unfurl its big golden mirror and deploy five thin layers of a giant plastic sunscreen that will keep the telescope and its instruments in the cold and dark.

But if all those steps succeed, what astronomers see through that telescope could change everything.

“The entire astronomy community, given the broad range of anticipated science returns and discovery potential, has skin in the game” with the telescope, said Priyamvada Natarajan, an astrophysicist at Yale. “We are all intellectually and emotionally invested.”

Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles, who won the Nobel Prize in 2020 for her observations of the black hole in the center of our galaxy, said she kept herself sane “by trusting that really smart people have worked really hard to get things right.”

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:12 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:12 a.m. ET

Joey Roulette

Reporting from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

A few dozen scientists and NASA officials are mingling here at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, the Webb telescope’s operations headquarters. Covid-19 precautions abound — me and other members of the media were given rapid Covid-19 tests and everyone is wearing masks.

Dec. 25, 2021, 6:09 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 6:09 a.m. ET

Dennis Overbye

Cosmic affairs correspondent

Looks cloudy and green down there in French Guiana. Watching I can almost feel the warmth and humidity. Wish I were there

Dec. 25, 2021, 5:55 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 5:55 a.m. ET
Launch teams preparing for the liftoff of the James Webb Space Telescope at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on Christmas morning.Credit…Bill Ingalls/NASA

The European Space Agency does not have an orbital launch site in any of its member countries on the European landmass. Instead, it typically launches from a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

Using the Kourou launch site is part of the consortium’s 300 million euro ($339 million) contribution to the Webb mission. NASA signed an agreement with ESA to launch Webb on an Ariane 5 rocket from Arianespace, a French rocket maker.

ESA’s commitment goes beyond the rocket, though. It also spent 70 million euros on the telescope’s Near-InfraRed Spectrograph, a scientific instrument for studying how galaxies formed and examining the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.

The Canadian Space Agency provided the Fine Guidance Sensor, which will help the telescope spot and focus on distant objects in the cosmos. And it pitched in another spectrographic instrument that will also help examine exoplanets. For these contributions, Canadian astronomers are guaranteed a 5 percent share of observation time with the telescope.

Dec. 25, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ET
Larkin Carey, an optical engineer, examining two test mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope’s on a prototype at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., in 2014. Credit…Chris Gunn/NASA

The Webb telescope was designed to probe a crucial stretch of early cosmic history known to astronomers as the dark ages. In this era, stars first lit and began to coalesce into galaxies, the main citizens of the cosmos today.

Cosmologists surmise that the first stars appeared when the universe was only about 100 million years old (today it is 13.8 billion years old). The farthest and earliest galaxy seen by astronomers, using the Hubble Space Telescope, dates from when the universe was older, 400 million years after the Big Bang. What happened during those missing 300 million years, when the universe took luminous flight and how the Big Bang turned into a sky full of constellations and life, is a mystery.

Dec. 25, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ETDec. 25, 2021, 5:30 a.m. ET
The James Webb Space Telescope aboard an Ariane 5 rocket at the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on Thursday.Credit…Bill Ingalls/NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to lift off at 7:20 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday from a European-managed spaceport in French Guiana on the coast of South America. The launch window lasts 32 minutes, until 7:52 a.m., in case there are any last-minute rocket checks or brief pauses in the countdown. A longer delay means the launch would be postponed to that same time on Sunday.

NASA, the telescope’s primary backer, will host a livestream on its YouTube channel beginning at 6 a.m., and on its main Twitter and Facebook accounts beginning at the same time. Agency officials will provide commentary with astronomers leading up to the launch. You can also register for a virtual launch event.

If you would rather watch the launch in French or in Spanish, the European Space Agency is also streaming the liftoff in those languages.

Early on Christmas morning, St?phane Isra?l, the chief executive of Arianspace, said on Twitter that a favorable weather report had been confirmed for launch time. That meant the company could begin adding propellants to the Ariane 5 rocket that will carry the Webb to space.

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