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The Webb Telescope, the most powerful ever put into space, launched successfully

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The most sophisticated space telescope ever built was launched today from the European Space Agency's spaceport in French Guiana.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: And we have engine start, and lift off.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

SIMON: The James Webb Space Telescope is headed for a spot a million miles from Earth. It will take unprecedented measurements of the universe and possibly help answer that most fundamental of questions - how did we get here? NPR's Joe Palca joins us. Joe, thanks so much for being with us.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: Oh, you're very welcome.

SIMON: And how did the launch go?

PALCA: Oh, my gosh, Scott, it was stunning how well everything worked. You know, these are really complicated pieces of equipment, and they all have to work properly. And, boy, they sure did. The launch was at 7:20 this morning from French Guiana. The rocket disappeared into the clouds pretty quickly. Solid rockets worked well, main engine worked well, upper stage worked well. The trajectory - they had a line on a screen that, you know, was the planned trajectory, and they had the actual trajectory. They were right on top of each other. It was perfect. And the last step in the launch process was for the telescope to separate from the upper stage. Springs were supposed to give the Webb a final shove on its way. And that was a critical maneuver, and everyone waited anxiously for the call from range operations manager Jean-Luc Voyer.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JEAN-LUC VOYER: (Speaking French) Webb Space Telescope. Go Webb.

PALCA: So it was a great moment. And...

SIMON: Yeah.

PALCA: ...Scott, the most amazing thing is that right afterwards, there was a picture of the Webb taken from the upper stage, a live picture of this thing sailing off into the - or gliding off into the - in space. So it was amazing, just amazing.

SIMON: Yeah. And you can hear the excitement in everyone's voices. What happens now?

PALCA: Well, this is now a long process of getting this space telescope ready for operation. In order to fit on top of the rocket, it had to be folded up like a piece of origami, essentially. So there are many, many, many steps in the unfolding process, and they're all critical. I mean, there are something like 300 points of failure along the way before this thing is fully unfolded and operational, and they all could end the mission. So there's a lot of...

SIMON: Wow.

PALCA: ...Anxiety that's going along just to get this thing ready for operations.

SIMON: And help us understand, why the exact goal of orbiting a million miles away from Earth?

PALCA: Well, that turns out to be a really sweet spot gravitationally because it's between the Earth and the sun. And so if you park a spacecraft there, it doesn't need a lot of energy to stay put.

SIMON: And when will - when's it going to be operational?

PALCA: Well, as I say, there's a lot of unfolding to do. And then there are 18 hexagonal mirrors, and they all have to be tuned exactly - positioned exactly properly to get the best - to get the most accurate picture. And the other thing is the spacecraft has to cool down. This is a spacecraft that's looking at light in the infrared. And for the instruments to work properly, the spacecraft has to be as cool as possible.

SIMON: What do they hope to see?

PALCA: Well, this is a spacecraft that should be able to see how some of the earliest stars and galaxies formed. They're also going to be able to look at exoplanets and possibly look into the atmospheres of exoplanets to see whether there is possibly the kind of atmosphere that would be acceptable for life. But, Scott, the really amazing thing is every time you use a new piece of equipment like this, you learn something you weren't expecting.

SIMON: Yeah.

PALCA: And so it's great to be able to say, oh, we're going to find things we didn't know. What are they? We don't know.

SIMON: Yeah.

PALCA: But they're going to be really interesting. And this is a great piece of equipment. I hope everything works properly when it's all set up.

SIMON: NPR's Joe Palca, thanks so much.

PALCA: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.