Arianespaceís Ariane 5 rocket with NASAís James Webb Space Telescope onboard lifts up from the launch pad, at the Europeís Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on December 25, 2021. (Photo by AFP)
The worldís most powerful space telescope on Saturday blasted off into orbit, headed to an outpost 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 miles) from Earth, after several delays caused by technical hitches.
The James Webb Space Telescope, some three decades and billions of dollars in the making, left Earth enclosed in its Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou Space Centre in French Guiana.
It is expected to take a month to reach its remote destination.
It is expected to beam back new clues that will help scientists understand more about the origins of the Universe and Earth-like planets beyond our solar system.
Named after a former NASA director, Webb follows in the footsteps of the legendary Hubble -- but intends to show humans what the Universe looked like even closer to its birth nearly 14 billion years ago.
Speaking on social media, Webb project co-founder John Mather described the telescopeís unprecedented sensitivity.
"JWST can see the heat signature of a bumblebee at the distance of the Moon," he said.
All that power is needed to detect the weak glow emitted billions of years ago by the very first galaxies to exist and the first stars being formed.
- íExceptional measuresí -
The telescope is unequaled in size and complexity.
Its mirror measures 6.5 meters (21 feet) in diameter -- three times the size of the Hubbleís mirror -- and is made of 18 hexagonal sections.
It is so large that it had to be folded to fit into the rocket.
That maneuver was laser-guided with NASA imposing strict isolation measures to limit any contact with the telescopeís mirrors from particles or even human breath.
Once the rockets have carried Webb 120 kilometers, the protective nose of the craft, called a "fairing", is shed to lighten the load.
To protect the delicate instrument from changes in pressure at that stage, rocket-builder Arianespace installed a custom decompression system.
"Exceptional measures for an exceptional client," said a European Space Agency official in Kourou on Thursday.
Crew on the ground will know whether the first stage of the flight was successful about 27 minutes after launch.
Once it reaches its station, the challenge will be to fully deploy the mirror and a tennis-court-sized sun shield.
That intimidatingly complex process will take two weeks and must be flawless if Webb is to function correctly.
Its orbit will be much farther than Hubble, which has been 600 kilometers above the Earth since 1990.
The location of Webbís orbit is called the Lagrange 2 point and was chosen in part because it will keep the Earth, the Sun, and the Moon all on the same side of its sun shield.
Webb is expected to officially enter service in June.