James Webb Space Telescope lifts off on historic mission

The $10bn James Webb telescope has left Earth on its mission to image the first stars to light up the Universe, the BBC reports.

The observatory was lifted skyward by an Ariane rocket from the Kourou spaceport in French Guiana.

Its flight to orbit was expected to last just under half an hour, with a signal confirming a successful outcome due to be picked up in Kenya.

Webb, named after one of the architects of the Apollo Moon landings, is the successor to the Hubble telescope.

Engineers working with the US, European and Canadian space agencies have built the new observatory to be 100 times more powerful, however.

Lift-off was eagerly awaited but accompanied also by a good deal of anxiety. Thousands of people worldwide have worked on the project over the past 30 years, and even though the Ariane is a very dependable vehicle – there are no guarantees when it comes to rockets.

“Webb is an extraordinary mission,” US space agency administrator Bill Nelson said before lift-off.

“It’s a shining example of what we can accomplish when we dream big. We’ve always known that this project would be a risky endeavour. But, of course, when you want a big reward, you have to usually take a big risk.”

At the core of the new facility’s capabilities is its 6.5m-wide golden mirror. This is almost three times wider than the primary reflector on Hubble.

The enlarged optics, combined with four super-sensitive instruments, should enable astronomers to look deeper into space – and thus further back in time – than ever before.

A key target will be the epoch of the pioneer stars that ended the darkness theorised to have gripped the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang more than 13.5 billion years ago.

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