As Santa makes his way back to the North Pole in the early hours of Saturday morning, another extraordinary flight will be about to begin. The James Webb Space Telescope — "the most powerful observatory ever sent into space," and having the humble goal of uncovering "the secrets of the universe" — is scheduled to take off from a European-managed launchpad in French Guiana at 7:20 a.m. Eastern.
A joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, the James Webb Space Telescope "will peer deeper into the cosmos — and farther back in time — to open a window on the universe as it took shape soon after the Big Bang," The Wall Street Journal explains. Though only roughly the size of a tennis court, the telescope is designed to detect light that was emitted 13.6 billion years ago, at the dawn of the universe — maybe up to as little as 100 million years after the Big Bang. Previously, the oldest galaxy astronomers have observed, using the 100-times-weaker Hubble Telescope, dates to around 400 million years after the Big Bang.
"We want to see the first objects that formed as the universe cooled down after the Big Bang," John Mather, a Nobel laureate and the senior project scientist for the telescope, explained to the Journal.
The launch is some 25 years, and $10 billion, in the making — much delayed, and much over-budget. But if all goes well (and as the scientists will be the first to tell you, that's still a big if), it could change — well, everything. "We could make a guess, Okay, I think we'll do this, I think we'll see that — but we simply don't know," Steve Finkelstein, an astrophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin, told The Atlantic. "We're looking at the universe in a new way, and we don't know what we're going to discover."