Science

Successful launch of NASA’s space telescope, in search of the origin of the universe

by Steve Gorman

(Reuters) – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which is meant to help unravel the mysteries of the universe and the birth of the first galaxies, was launched on Saturday by a European rocket, ushering in a new era of ‘ astronomy’.

This revolutionary infrared telescope, costing 9 billion dollars (7.9 billion euros), took off on Saturday at 12:20 GMT (1:30 pm Paris time) from the Agency’s Kourou space center. European Space Station (ESA), in French Guiana, aboard the European Ariane 5 rocket.

“From a rainforest to the frontiers of time, James Webb begins a journey into the birth of the universe,” said a NASA commentator as the two-stage launcher, equipped with two booster rockets, left its launch pad in a sky. cloudy.

After a 27-minute hypersonic journey into space, the six-ton ​​instrument was launched from the top stage of the French-made rocket, some 865 miles (almost 1,400 kilometers) above Earth. It should gradually expand to the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days, as it will sail alone.

Live video captured by a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed Webb slowly drifting away after being launched, drawing cheers and applause from flight engineers at the mission control center.

Flight controllers confirmed moments later, when the Webb probe’s solar panel was deployed, that the power supply was on.

It will take 29 days for the telescope to reach its final destination in solar orbit (“Lagrange 2” point), about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, or about four times the distance from our planet to the Moon.

Unlike its predecessor, the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, which revolves around Earth, Web will be placed in the same orbit as Earth around the sun.

Named after a former NASA administrator in the 1960s, this telescope is 100 times more powerful than Hubble. It is expected to revolutionize astronomers’ understanding of the universe by looking at parts of the cosmos dating back a million years after the “Big Bang.”

Webb will primarily observe the cosmos in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to scan the gas and dust clouds where stars are born, while Hubble operated primarily in the ultraviolet and optical wavelengths.

COSMOLOGICAL HISTORY LESSON

The main mirror of the new telescope is made up of 18 hexagonal segments made of gold-plated beryllium metal, which gives it a large surface area that allows it to capture more light and observe more distant objects, therefore older than Hubble or any other telescope. .

According to astronomers, it will provide access to hitherto unattainable information about the cosmos, dating back just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical explosion that triggered the expansion of the global observable universe some 13.8 billion years ago.

Hubble’s observations date back to about 400 million years after the Big Bang, revealing objects that Webb will be able to examine more precisely.

In addition to the formation of the first stars in the universe, it will also allow the study of supermassive black holes that would occupy the center of distant galaxies.

Webb’s instruments also make it possible to search for evidence of potentially vital atmospheres around dozens of recently documented exoplanets – celestial bodies orbiting distant stars – and to observe worlds much closer to us, such as Mars and Saturn’s icy moon Titan.

This telescope is the result of an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp is the prime contractor. The launch of the telescope by Arianespace is part of the European contribution.

The astronomical operation of the telescope, to be managed from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is expected to begin in the summer of 2022, after approximately six months of aligning and calibrating Webb’s mirrors and instruments.

That’s when NASA plans to release the first batch of images taken by Webb, which are designed to last up to 10 years.

(Report by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; French version Jean-Michel Bélot)

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