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So far so good for the James Webb Space Telescope after its long-awaited launch


Delight - sheer and utter delight. That was the emotion emanating this morning from the control rooms for the launch and operations of the James Webb Space Telescope. It's the most sophisticated space telescope ever built, and it should revolutionize our understanding of the universe. It lifted off from a European spaceport in French Guiana at 7:20 Eastern time. There are still many days of nail-biting steps before the telescope is operational, but getting the launch out of the way is a big relief for astronomers all over the world. NPR's Joe Palca has been following today's events and has this report.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: NASA mission managers love the word nominal. It means everything is going fine, no problems. It turns out mission managers have a similar word in French - normal.



PALCA: That was the common word from the control room in French Guiana. The launch appeared to be flawless. Initial signs from the telescope suggest everything is nominal there as well. Tom Wilson is president for the Space Systems sector for Northrop Grumman, an aerospace company that assembled Webb for NASA.

TOM WILSON: We've got positive power coming from the solar arrays. We've got good telemetry coming off the satellite. So right now, everything's looking good.

PALCA: Still, there are a lot of steps that lie ahead, all essential if the telescope is to function. A sun shield the size of a tennis court must deploy to keep the telescope cool enough for its instruments to work properly. The Webb's 18 hexagonal mirrors have to fold into place and be properly aligned. And the telescope propulsion system has to operate properly for it to reach the desired point a million miles from Earth. Still, getting off the ground was a step astronomers have been waiting for for a long time. Webb has had a bumpy road, with years of delay and cost overruns. Maria Claudia Ramirez-Tannus is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. She was visiting her family in Colombia, and they all watched the launch.

MARIA CLAUDIA RAMIREZ-TANNUS: We are super excited. This is an amazing thing of humanity.

PALCA: Ramirez-Tannus studies how planets form. Webb's instruments will be uniquely important for her work because she's particularly interested in studying planets forming in the neighborhood of massive stars.

RAMIREZ-TANNUS: And it is Webb - the only telescope and instruments that are going to allow us to look deep into stellar nurseries.

PALCA: Another astronomer who's thrilled Webb is on its way is Jessica Spade (ph).

JESSICA SPAKE: I'm over the moon - absolutely over the moon. It was a very emotional experience, watching that launch today.

PALCA: Spade is a researcher at Caltech. She studies the atmospheres of planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. She says Webb will usher in a new era of studying these planets.

SPAKE: We'll be able to look at smaller planets than we've ever able to characterize before.

PALCA: Some of those planets may have atmospheres capable of sustaining life. As useful as it will be for studying planets, the Webb was built for a different reason. Astronomers wanted a telescope that would let them peer into the early days of the universe. Heidi Hammel is an interdisciplinary scientist with the James Webb Space Telescope. She says because it's able to measure infrared light, it will be able to see older objects than the Hubble Space Telescope was able to see.

HEIDI HAMMEL: Our Hubble images are more like teenage years, high school yearbook pictures, and Webb will push us to the baby pictures of the universe.

PALCA: Those pictures are still at least six months off, as it will take that long for the telescope to finish its checkout period. But astronomers can now be much more confident that day will come.

Joe Palca, NPR News.


PALCA: This is NPR.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we mispronounced the name of the researcher at Caltech. Her name is Jessica Spake.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.