Updated: The world's most powerful telescope is on its way to the cosmos. A rocket lifted off Saturday morning with the James Webb Space Telescope, reports the AP. NASA is collaborating with the European and Canadian space agencies on the telescope, and the launch took place from French Guiana. It will take the Webb about a month to get into place. Our original story with background on the mission from Saturday:
Saturday is a very big day for fans of space exploration, and not because of any new gizmos they might find under the tree. At 7:20am Eastern, the world's most powerful telescope—the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, two decades in the making—will be launched into orbit, reports Space.com. Assuming all goes well, the Webb will function as a far more advanced successor to the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Details:
- Launch: The Webb is scheduled to lift off aboard a rocket from a pad in French Guiana at 7:20 in the morning. The foreign site is because the telescope is actually a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and Canada's space agency, per the New York Times. The launch will be live-streamed via NASA TV.
- The stakes: What happens in the aftermath of the launch "will either change our understanding of the universe, or deliver a crushing blow to NASA and the global astronomical community," according to the Washington Post. The telescope will "cruise for 29 days to a unique orbit around the sun that keeps it roughly 1 million miles from Earth ... (and) after it escapes Earth’s gravity, it must begin opening up, blossoming into a functioning telescope." NASA counts no fewer than 344 potential "single-point failures," the vast majority of them related to the initial deployment.
- The mission: It's large. Here is how CNET sums it up: The Webb "is armed with technology that could unveil the unknown, unseen and mind-bendingly far reaches of our universe. It can show us, at last, what really happened just moments after the Big Bang and use powerful, precise infrared imaging to answer questions like: How did the very first stars form? Is there life beyond Earth? Are we missing a piece of the universe's puzzle?"
- 2 key advancements: To achieve all of the above, the Times notes that the Webb differs from the Hubble in some crucial ways. For one thing, it is sensitive to infrared radiation and can capture wavelengths of light the Hubble cannot. Also, it "relies on a primary mirror 6.5 meters in diameter, compared with the mirror on the Hubble, which is 2.4 meters. That gives it about seven times as much light gathering capability and thus the ability to see further into the past."
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