NASA's James Webb Space Telescope was launched by rocket from South America's northeastern coast early Saturday (December 25), opening a new era of astronomy.
The $9 billion infrared telescope, which has been hailed 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 from the European Space Agency's launch base in French Guiana.
After a 27-minute ride into space, the 14,000-pound instrument was released, and should gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward on its own.
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.
Astronomical operation of the telescope is expected to begin in the summer of 2022.