Engineers and technicians assemble the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
After 30 years and $10 million, the James Webb Space Telescope will say goodbye to Earth on Christmas Day when it launches into space, transcending telescopes before it and providing a stunning look into the early days of the universe.
The telescope — a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and Canada’s space agency — will be the most powerful observatory ever sent into space.
If you’re up early enough on Christmas morning — as many of us likely will be — you can catch the telescope’s launch from a spaceport in French Guiana, located on the coast of South America. The launch is scheduled for 7:20 a.m. ET.
If mechanical issues delay launch longer than 30 minutes, it will take place Sunday, according to a New York Times report.
Interested in watching the launch? NASA will host a livestream on its YouTube channel and its main Twitter and Facebook accounts beginning at 6 a.m. ET. You can also register for a virtual launch event.
What’s so special about this telescope?
Specifically, the Webb telescope has a massive mirror compared to other space telescopes, and its observatory will specialize in studying infrared light, according to Space.com. This will allow scientists to look into the universe’s early days and help astronomers better study the earliest moments of the universe, star formation, and far-off exoplanets. Scientists also hope it will help them understand dark matter.
Webb will reach its ultimate destination — the Earth-sun Lagrange point 2, a gravitationally-stable point in space located on the opposite side of Earth from the sun — about 30 days after launch. The telescope is expected to deliver its first images back to Earth within six months.
The telescope’s combined capabilities represent a considerable step forward from existing space telescopes.
The Webb telescope relies on a primary mirror that’s 6.5 meters in diameter. Compared with the mirror on the Hubble telescope, which is 2.4 meters, the Webb telescope has seven times as much light-gathering capability. This means it can see even further into the universe’s past, the Times reported.
In terms of engineering, the Webb telescope was a challenging accomplishment. The project overcame loose screws, testing missteps, a Congressional cancellation, a pandemic, and even the small risk of being hijacked by pirates on its way to the launch site, according to Space.com.
“The James Webb Space Telescope is an Apollo moment for all of NASA, for the entire world, but especially for our science programs worldwide,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a news conference, Space.com reported. “It’s the stuff of dreams.”