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A new era of astronomy: NASA launches revolutionary space telescope

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1 million miles from Earth - about four times farther away than the moon.

Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket, with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, launches from French Guiana
Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket, with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, launches from Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana December 25, 2021 in a still image from video.
NASA TV / via Reuters

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, built to give the world its first glimpse of the universe as it existed when the earliest galaxies formed, was launched by rocket early Saturday from the northeastern coast of South America, opening a new era of astronomy.

The revolutionary $9 billion infrared telescope, described by NASA as the premiere space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 7:20 a.m. EST from the European Space Agency's (ESA) launch base in French Guiana.

The flawless Christmas Day launch, with a countdown conducted in French, was carried live on a joint NASA-ESA webcast. The liftoff capped a project decades in the making, coming to fruition after years of repeated delays and cost over-runs.

"From a tropical rain forest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the universe," a NASA commentator said as the two-stage launch vehicle, fitted with double solid-rocket boosters, roared off its launch pad into cloudy skies.

After a 27-minute, hypersonic ride into space, the 14,000-pound instrument was released from the upper stage of the French-built rocket about 865 miles above the Earth, and should gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward on its own.

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Live video captured by a camera mounted on the rocket's upper stage showed the Webb gliding gently away after it was jettisoned, drawing cheers and applause from jubilant flight engineers in the mission control center.

Flight controllers confirmed moments later, as the Webb's solar-energy array was deployed, that its power supply was working.

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit 1 million miles from Earth - about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb's special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with the Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.

By comparison, Webb's 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from 340 miles away, passing in and out of the planet's shadow every 90 minutes.

Named after the man who oversaw NASA through most of its formative decade of the 1960s, Webb is about 100 times more sensitive than Hubble and is expected to transform scientists' understanding of the universe and our place in it.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, striking a spiritual tone as he addressed the launch webcast by video link, quoted the Bible and hailed the new telescope as a "time machine" that will "capture the light from the very beginning of the creation."

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