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James Webb Space Telescope on track for revealing our cosmic origins

on 27 December 2021

The James Webb Space Telescope was successfully launched with an Ariane 5 rocket from the European Spaceport in French Guiana, on 25 December 2021, at 14:20, local time in Romania.

It is now en route to its final destination: Lagrange point 2, 1.5 million km away from Earth. An international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the James Webb Telescope was designed to answer fundamental questions about the Universe.

The main scientific objective of Webb is to uncover our cosmic origins — when did the first stars and galaxies appear, some more than 13,5 billion years ago. As it observes the Universe in infrared, Webb will be able to see beyond thick clouds of gas and dust, giving us information on star and galaxy formation. Through these observations, Webb will complement the discoveries done by Hubble and take our understanding of the Universe even further.

“The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope is a historical moment in international space collaboration. The telescope will expand humanity’s observation capacity to the theoretical limit of the original creation, from where light reaches us older in infrared. The programme cost was equivalent to a small country’s GDP and has created one of the most performant technical constructions ever made by humans. European industry and researchers are playing an important role in this mission. Ariane 5 was chosen for delivering Webb on orbit because it is the best launcher thanks to its versatility, reliability and safety, a proof of European performance,” stated the President of the Romanian Space Agency (ROSA), Dr. Phys. Marius-Ioan Piso.

Webb will also study the outer planets of our Solar System and the atmosphere of exoplanets, looking for elements such as methane, water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. In this line of research, Webb will complement ESA’s Ariel mission, scheduled to launch in 2029 and which will study what exoplanets are made of, how they form and evolve.

Webb will provide information on dark matter as well, complementing the ESA Euclid mission, who will map the geometry of the Universe and study dark energy.

By investing in such complementary missions, ESA is providing European astronomers with capabilities to study the Universe extensively and is offering European industry opportunities for technological innovation and development to maintain Europe at the forefront of space exploration.

The launch of the telescope is one of the four major contributions of the European Space Agency to the Webb mission. The excellence of the European industry and research community has made possible the development of two complex instruments: the NIRSpec instrument and 50% of the MIRI instrument. ESA will also provide 15 astronomers to the Webb science and operations centre based at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, USA.

In return for the European contributions, ESA gained full partnership in Webb and secured full access to the Webb observatory for astronomers from ESA Member States, including Romania, which is contributing to the mission via the Mandatory Science Programme. European researchers will be represented on all advisory bodies of the project and will be able to win observing time on Webb through a peer review process, with an expectation of a minimum ESA share of 15% over the duration of the mission. 33% of the total Webb observing time for the first year has already been won by European researchers.

Webb Observations

In the .gif image, the James Webb Space Telescope at 6 hours after launch, observed from the Astronomical Institute of the Romanian Academy (IAAR). During the observations, the telescope was at 90,000 km away from Earth. The observations were done with a 0.5 m in diameter IAAR telescope based in Bucharest. The image also shows the upper stage of the Ariane rocket. Credit: IAAR

Main image credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace