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James Webb Space Telescope carries Cambridge technology into orbit to help unlock secrets of early universe



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The most advanced space telescope ever created blasted off on Christmas Day - and carried it with some Cambridge technology.

NASA’s $10billion James Webb Space Telescope - a joint effort with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency - will give us a new insight into cosmic history, unlocking new discoveries about our solar system and far beyond.

James Webb Space Telescope. Picture: NASA
James Webb Space Telescope. Picture: NASA

Billed as the world’s greatest time machine, by observing the light from the first galaxies it will enable us to better understand the early universe, back to just 400 million years after the Big Bang.

The Webb observatory was launched at 7.20am local time on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket launches with the James Webb Space Telescope onboard, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. Picture: NASA/Bill Ingalls
Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket launches with the James Webb Space Telescope onboard, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021. Picture: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA administrator Bill Nelson said: “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe. I can’t wait to see what it uncovers!”

Half an hour after its launch, Webb unfolded its solar array, which will power the observatory.

Three mid-course correction burns are putting the spacecraft into an optimal trajectory for its destination in orbit, about one million miles from Earth.

“I want to congratulate the team on this incredible achievement – Webb’s launch marks a significant moment not only for NASA, but for thousands of people worldwide who dedicated their time and talent to this mission over the years,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

“Webb’s scientific promise is now closer than it ever has been. We are poised on the edge of a truly exciting time of discovery, of things we’ve never before seen or imagined.”

Seen as the long-term successor to the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, Webb will not deliver its first images until six months of commissioning in space is completed.

James Webb Space Telescope. Picture: NASA
James Webb Space Telescope. Picture: NASA

It features a 6.5m diameter gold-coated primary mirror, a kite-shaped sunshield that will unfold in space to roughly the size of a tennis court and carries four state-of-the-art science instruments with infrared detectors operating at unprecedented resolution.

The Kavli Institute for Cosmology in Cambridge (KICC) has been heavily involved in the primary spectrograph for Webb, called NIRSpec, which will be the first multi-object spectrograph in space and orders of magnitude more sensitive than any previous facilities.

As the launch date neared, Roberto Maiolino, professor of experimental astrophysics at KICC and the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physics, tweeted: “I've been working on NIRSpec, the spectrograph on board of Webb, for nearly 20 years. So really thrilled…”

James Webb Space Telescope. Picture: NASA
James Webb Space Telescope. Picture: NASA

Spectrographs like NIRSpec break light into colours for analysis. NIRSpec operates over a wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 microns and will gather spectra of specific objects as well as observing 100 objects simultaneously – the first spectrograph in space with this multi-object capability.

This “microshutter array” relies in microshutter cells, each about the width of a human hair, with lids that open and close when a magnetic field is applied. Each cell can be controlled individually, meaning it can be opened or closed to view or block a portion of the sky.

The Kavli team have been heavily involved in the NIRSpec guaranteed time observations (GTO) team, which has been working on plans for extragalactic surveys.

“The launch of the Webb Space Telescope is a pivotal moment – this is just the beginning for the Webb mission,” said Gregory L. Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA headquarters.

“Now we will watch Webb’s highly anticipated and critical 29 days on the edge. When the spacecraft unfurls in space, Webb will undergo the most difficult and complex deployment sequence ever attempted in space. Once commissioning is complete, we will see awe-inspiring images that will capture our imagination.”

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