NASA’s James Webb Telescope, world’s most powerful, launches into space

The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, launched Saturday morning on a rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.

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Webb, the largest and most complex space observatory ever built, “will fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe” with the ability to see further and in higher resolution than its predecessor, according to NASA. Officials said the telescope will “peer back in time to when the universe was young – over 13.5 billion years ago, a few hundred million years after the big bang – to search for the first galaxies in the universe.”

In a statement Saturday, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Webb “represents the ambition that NASA and our partners maintain to propel us forward into the future.”

“The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe,” he said.

In a joint mission with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, the telescope launched on an Ariane 5 rocket at 7:20 a.m. EST on Christmas Day. Officials said ground teams began receiving telemetry data from Webb about five minutes later. About a half-hour into the flight, the rocket separated from the observatory at an altitude of about 75 miles. A short while later, it unfolded its solar array, giving the observatory power.

“This was such a great moment on Christmas Day, and I think everyone has been excited with us,” Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency, said Saturday after the launch. “I’m very happy to … say that we have delivered the spacecraft very precisely into orbit.”

The observatory will commission in space for six months before delivering its first images, according to NASA.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from 14 countries, 29 states and Washington, D.C., spent 40 million hours building, testing and integrating the James Webb Space Telescope beginning in 2004. Officials with NASA expect the telescope to operate for at least the next 10 years.

“Webb’s launch marks a significant moment not only for NASA, but for thousands of people worldwide who dedicated their time and talent to this mission over the years,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, said Saturday. “Webb’s scientific promise is now closer than it ever has been. We are poised on the edge of a truly exciting time of discovery, of things we’ve never before seen or imagined.”

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