With its unique abilities, the James Webb Space Telescope is set to search for signs of life in exoplanets, and observe how the first galaxies formed and evolved.

Webb, the largest and most powerful telescope of its kind, will be past the Moon’s orbit in 1.5 days.
Webb, the largest and most powerful telescope of its kind, will be past the Moon’s orbit in 1.5 days. (AFP)

The James Webb Space Telescope has rocketed away on a high-stakes quest to behold light from the first stars and galaxies and scour the universe for hints of life.

The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope soared from French Guiana on South America’s northeastern coast at 1220 GMT on Saturday.

“It’s going to give us a better understanding of our universe and our place in it: who we are, what we are, the search that’s eternal,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said earlier this week.

The observatory hurtled to its orbit 1.5 million kilometres (930,000 miles) away, known as the Lagrange 2 point. It will take a month to get there and another five months before it's ready to start scanning the cosmos.

Successor to the ageing Hubble Space Telescope, NASA partnered with the European and Canadian space agencies to build and launch the 7-ton telescope, with thousands of people working on it since the 1990s.

READ MORE: Move over Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope is here

Two critical weeks

With its infrared vision, the telescope will look 13.5 billion years back in time, when the universe was in its youth and the very first galaxies began to form.

It will also gaze into the atmosphere of planets beyond our solar system, called Exoplanets, in search of elements such as traces of liquid water to explore Earth-like planets with a potential of hosting life.

But there are no second chances with this telescope, which took around three decades and 10 billions of dollars to build, now that it has been launched.

'Most complicated spacecraft activity'

The James Webb Space Telescope is so large that it had to be folded like an origami to fit into the Ariane 5 rocket that carried it into space.

It's showpiece is an 18-part gold-plated mirror, 6.5 metres (21 feet) in diameter, and protecting the observatory is a five-layered sunshield, vital for keeping the mirror and infrared detectors at subzero temperatures.

The sunshield, at the size of a tennis court, is set to open three days after liftoff, taking at least five days to unfold and lock into place. Next, the mirror segments should open up 12 days or so into the flight.

The telescope will take around two weeks to unfold and fully deploy itself. In those two weeks, each of Webb’s 178 release mechanisms must work perfectly for the telescope to function.

“Unfolding Webb is hands down the most complicated spacecraft activity we’ve ever done,” Mike Menzel, a Webb mission lead systems engineer, says in a YouTube video.

Moreover, Webb’s journey will take it millions of kilometres away from the Earth, where it is not possible to send a crew to fix the telescope in case of a problem.

READ MORE: NASA telescope takes off to discover early cosmic history

Source: TRTWorld and agencies