This is the glorious moment the JWST parts ways with the rocket that launched it to space. Savor the picture, it's the last image we'll ever get of the telescope itself.
The JWST – the largest, most expensive, and most powerful space telescope ever created – was launched from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on December 25 after countless delays and setbacks. The European Space Agency (ESA) has now released a real-time video of the instrument's separation from the Ariane 5 launch vehicle and the subsequent solar array deployment, a maneuver that occurred just under 30 minutes after its launch.
Filmed from Ariane 5’s upper stage, the video was transmitted in near real-time during the launch on Christmas Day, but the initial transmission was poor. ESA has since polished up the footage and produced a clip that's enough to make Stanley Kubrick's mouth water.
By the end of January 2021, the telescope is set to reach its final destination – L2, the second Lagrangian Point, around 1.5 million kilometers (932,056 miles) from Earth. This is significantly further from Earth than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbited just 547 kilometers (340 miles) above Earth.
So far, so good, but these next few weeks will be extremely tense back at HQ in Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute. As the JWST cruises through space alone, it will need to unfold and successfully deploy, an intense complex operation that relies on thousands of parts, 50 separate deployments, and 178 release mechanisms. Every part of this process has to work perfectly or else the mission could be put in jeopardy.
If its treacherous journey proves successful, the JWST will revolutionize astronomy and our understanding of the universe. Peering into the depths of the cosmos, the telescope will shine light onto the birth of the first galaxies and perhaps even identify distant exoplanets that could potentially harbor life.
Godspeed and good luck, JWST – don’t screw up!