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NASA successfully launched its revolutionary new space observatory, the James Webb Telescope into space. The most anticipated NASA mission began aboard the European Ariane 5 rocket from South America. The core aim is to transform how we study the deepest depths of the Universe.

“From a tropical rainforest to the edge of time itself, James Webb begins a voyage back to the birth of the Universe,” Rob Navias, NASA’s announcer on the agency’s livestream, said at liftoff.

The liftoff is only the initial stage in the million-mile journey. James Webb Space Telescope has to overcome a lot of obstacles in space. According to The Verge over the next month, the spacecraft will be journeying out to its final location 1 million miles from Earth. While gliding through space, the spacecraft will be slowly reshaping itself. The process requires a lot of effort and one breakage could spoil the entire mission.

JWST will become the crucial technology in this mission. If everything goes alright it changes how we imagine distant journeys into space. With a gold-plated mirror stretching 21 feet, or 6.5 meters wide, JWST will be able to gather infrared light from galaxies that have crossed 13.6 billion light-years through space and time. Easily speaking when JWST sees these distant clusters, it will be seeing them as they were 13.6 billion years ago, right after the Universe as we know it came into being.

JWST completely unfolded.
An artistic rendering of JWST completely unfurled in space. Image credit: theverge.com

But let’s not forget that a telescope is still a telescope and the most decent part is cosmic objects. JWST will observe distant alien worlds, black holes, galaxies, supernovae and violent collisions between dense stars. And perhaps, we’ll see some things we were not expecting along the way. “We are, without a doubt, going to see surprises… the likes of which we can only dream of right now,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, tells The Verge.

The first proposal to create a giant and powerful space telescope appeared in 1996, but it took two and a half decades to turn these words into reality. Early mission engineers hoped to launch such an observatory as early as 2007 for a price tag as low as $1 billion. In real life such an ambitious project required everything double or even triple: money, time and effort. Congress even tried to cancel the project at one point over the rising costs but agreed to continue funding the mission if NASA stuck to a cost cap of $8.8 billion. However, NASA blew through that, and the entire mission cost now sits at $9.7 billion.

Despite all the management challenges the space agency delivered its telescope at a launch station in French Guiana this October, where it had been undergoing final tests at the site of its primary contractor Northrop Grumman.

The telescope will be folded until it disconnects from the rocket, as it’s too massive. NASA even signed an agreement with Europe to fly JWST on Arianespace’s premiere Ariane 5 rocket back in the early 2000s, citing the vehicle’s reliability. Although Ariane 5 is nearly 18 feet, or 5.4 meters, wide, it was still not big enough to carry JWST to space completely unfurled.

When JWST does all its deployments it will release its primary mirror, which also had to launch to space folded. You can follow JWST’s position in space and deployments stages as NASA is providing live tracking right here.

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