The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope has rocketed away 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 morning sky on Saturday.
The $9bn observatory hurtled towards its destination 1.6 million kilometres (1 million miles) 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 will not 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.
“It’s going to give us a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that’s eternal,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said earlier this week.
But he cautioned: “When you want a big reward, you have to usually take a big risk.”