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What the world's largest telescope will reveal about the universe

In this photo provided by NASA, Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope onboard, is seen at the launch pad on Dec. 23, 2021, at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. The James Webb Space Telescope has infrared vision, allowing it to peer deeper into the universe, all the way to the first stars and galaxies. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)
In this photo provided by NASA, Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope onboard, is seen at the launch pad on Dec. 23, 2021, at the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana. The James Webb Space Telescope has infrared vision, allowing it to peer deeper into the universe, all the way to the first stars and galaxies. (Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP)

This week, the James Webb Space Telescope reached its parking spot in orbit — about a million miles away from Earth.

The largest telescope ever put in space blasted off on Christmas Day and took 30 days to get there. Hundreds of things could have gone wrong. But after a stunningly successful journey, the telescope could spend the next 20 years surveilling the cosmos beaming back information and pictures to its home planet.

The telescope is larger than the rocket that carried it into orbit, says Mike Menzel, NASA’s lead mission systems engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope. That means parts of the telescope needed to unfold and deploy in space — which is a risky endeavor.

"In essence, what we did was after we launched the telescope, we rebuilt it on orbit," he says. "Pretty soon, we’ll be aligning it, focusing it and getting our first images from it."

After two decades of preparing for anything that could go wrong, it's an exciting time to work at NASA, Menzel says. But the thrill doesn't come without tension.

"No satellite engineer likes to deploy things on orbit, especially this complex," he says. "So it was very reassuring and gratifying when we saw everything come together the way it did."

It takes only four seconds for a signal to reach the telescope, he says. And NASA expects to receive its first images from it in June.

The telescope was designed to meet four goals, he says: see the first galaxies that formed in the universe after the Big Bang about 3.5 billion years ago, watch how those galaxies change over time, see the birth of stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, and watch our solar system evolve.

In the 25 years since NASA set those objectives, a new curiosity grew around getting detailed information about the 4,000 exoplanets revolving around other stars, Menzel says.

"If history is any teacher, every time we put a new telescope in orbit, we find stuff we never thought to ask. We find surprises," he says. "And that’s the thing that excites me the most."


Marcelle Hutchins produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Allison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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