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Chicago astronomers thrilled by possibilities of ‘time-traveling’ Webb Space Telescope

The telescope, which took 25 years and $10 billion to build, launched Saturday on a mission to show the universe in ways it’s never been seen before.

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, lifts off Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, at Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.
Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, lifts off Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, at Europe’s Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana.
AP Photos

After decades of development and billions of dollars of investment, the James Webb Space Telescope finally took off on its mission Saturday to see the stars and galaxies dating back to the beginning of the universe.

The gigantic telescope is the product of a joint collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency — and its unprecedented new windows to the cosmos will have ramifications for Chicagoans, too, local astronomers say.

“Essentially, this telescope is a time machine,” said Michelle Nichols, director of public observing at the Adler Planetarium. “It’s going to be an amazing tool.”

The Webb telescope uses infrared technology, which allows it to see objects farther away and more clearly than ever before. As the telescope observes stars and galaxies, it’s actually seeing them as they were billions of years ago — all the way to the beginning of the universe 13.5 billion years ago.

This “time-traveling” is similar to how we see the sun, Nichols explained. The rays are actually eight minutes old, since that’s how long it takes for them to travel to reach the earth.

John Carlstrom, a professor and chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, said that astronomers so far have been studying the universe without vital information — like trying to piece together your family history without any of the baby pictures.

“What the James Webb Space Telescope will do is turn up the baby pictures,” Carlstrom said Sunday. “We’ll see what the universe looked like in its infancy.”

Nichols said she teared up watching Saturday’s launch.

“When it’s on the ground it’s safe… When you stick it on top of a big tube of explosives — which is what a rocket is — as soon as you light up that rocket, it’s going. There is nothing you can do at that point,” she said.

Carlstrom said he also found himself “surprisingly moved” during the launch.

“Nothing went wrong. It was perfect. It was just a beautiful gift,” he said.

While the takeoff went smoothly, everything else has to go perfectly for the telescope to function properly. The equipment, mirrors and sun shields must all unfold and turn on as they’re supposed to — otherwise, “we don’t have a telescope,” Nichols said.

The next 29 days are crucial, but Nichols said she won’t be able to rest easy until about six months from now, when it’s expected to be fully operational.

But, if you’re not an astronomer or science fan, why care about the Webb?

“There’s something for everyone,” Nichols said.

Some might marvel at the advanced technology within the telescope — technology that took nearly 30 years and thousands of people to develop, Nichols said.

Others might benefit from the technological advancements made during its development in ways they never knew. Some might be in awe of the incredible pictures it will be able to capture, while science fiction fans might be struck by the possibilities of “science facts,” Nichols said.

“Some people just look up and wonder,” Nichols said. “They wonder, ‘Are we alone?’ ‘Is earth the only planet with life?’ ‘What do we know about the possibilities for life elsewhere in the universe?’ This telescope will hopefully give us more information about that.”

The telescope also represents collaboration and the power of science, Nichols said.

“Science, and astronomy especially, can show that we can often put our differences aside and find common ground,” Nichols said.