Just a few hours ago, an Ariane 5 rocket blasting off from a spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana carried the James Webb Space Telescope (or JWST) to the stars. The JWST has been in development for decades, with NASA, the ESA, and the Canadian space agencies all taking part in its development. The idea for a next-gen space telescope was proposed somewhere in the late 90’s, and the timeline for its construction was pushed back and back, with costs ballooning. Still, all that time, expense, and effort has paid off today because it successfully rocketed off space, on its way to an orbit beyond our moon where it can boldly peer where no one has peered before.
The JWST is headed for an orbit at the Earth-Sun Lagrange Point 2 (or L2). A Lagrange Point is a point of gravitational equilibrium between two large-mass bodies (like the Earth and the Sun) where a small object (such as the JWST) can achieve a stable orbit with little effort. L2 is located about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth (in contrast, the moon is “only” 384,400 kilometers away), which means the JWST has to make quite a long trek. It’s expected to arrive there in about 30 days.
It was early Christmas morning (around 9:20 a.m. where the spaceport is) in French Guiana when the launch countdown started, and as the world watched with bated breath, the Ariane 5 rocket roared to life and shot off into space. About 9 minutes later the main stage engine separated, and the upper stage started a 16 minute burn that continued the telescope’s journey on its way. When it came time to jettison the upper stage, springs gently pushed the JWST away from the rest of the rocket assembly, and the mission control center clapped jubilantly. The JWST reported confirmation that it powered on correctly, and is on its way to its L2 orbit.
Even though the launch was successful, the JWST still needs to make several course corrections to ensure that it arrives at the right spot. Let’s hope the rest of the mission goes as smoothly as the launch did!