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Webb telescope in space with portion of planet Earth visible.

Unfolding the Universe

After decades of preparation, the James Webb Space Telescope had a successful launch and is now managed by the Mission Operations Center at STScI.

Alt text:  Launch onscreen behind audience, including shadow of man who is celebrating with arms raised in foreground.
STScI Director Ken Sembach (facing camera) celebrates Webb launch with a socially distanced group in the institute's auditorium. Credit: STScI, Christine Pulliam.

In the pre-dawn hours of Christmas morning 2021, eyes around the world were on the sky. They were looking not for Santa, but for the long-awaited launch of the James Webb Space Telescope from the European Space Agency's Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana.

In the week leading up to launch, last-minute technical checks, weather reports, the approaching holiday, and fears over the newly discovered omicron variant of the coronavirus kept everyone on high alert. The institute's plans to host journalists and distinguished guests on site for expert talks and launch viewing went mostly virtual. Across social media, classic carols and the poem "The Night Before Christmas" by Clement Moore were creatively repurposed: " 'Twas the night before launch, And all through Kourou, The teams are a go, and the weather is too! The rocket rolled out to the launchpad with glee, Join us for the world's biggest launch watch party!"

A small group joined institute Director Ken Sembach and Deputy Director Nancy Levenson for a socially distanced viewing in the Muller building auditorium, including Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA; Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), and journalists from the New York Times and the Washington Post.

In the Room When It Happened

Staff working in the Webb Mission Operations Center (MOC), including engineers and scientists from STScI, NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, changed shifts at 3:30 a.m. The team for launch was now in place. Dr. Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb's project scientist who was at the institute during launch, described the scene:  

"It was an eerie feeling to pull up to the institute at 4:30 a.m. on a dark and crisp morning knowing what a historic day this would be, and not quite believing this was actually happening. The building was quiet, and small groups of people were waiting in the lobby, full of nervous anticipation.

"As launch was upon us, a small group of spectators from AURA, the mission's partners, and reporters scrambled to take our seats in the auditorium. I don't think anyone was breathing as we watched the liftoff. Within seconds, the Ariane 5 disappeared into the low cloud deck.

"The best moment of the launch was when we saw the solar panel unfold within the field of view of the Ariane 5's launch camera. It was an unexpected treat, and triggered an audible sigh of relief that seemed to release decades of tension in a single moment: JWST was power positive!"

While most launch celebrations were not the in-person toasts and hugs that colleagues at the institute had hoped for, many expressed that a smaller gathering with family and close friends had its own poignancy. Rather than a record of one large gathering, institute staff instead shared pictures of dozens of personal launch celebrations.

Telescope with solar array extended and shining in sunlight, with bright planet Earth to the right.
Humanity's final view of Webb. The observatory's solar array was captured live by a camera on the upper stage of the Ariane rocket as it unfolded for viewers. This autonomous move initiated the "hand off" of controls to the staff in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) in Baltimore. Credit: Credit Arianespace, ESA, NASA, CSA, CNES. Top image: Arianespace, ESA, NASA, CSA, CNES.
People sit at long rows of tables with computers and multiple screens per person.
The James Webb Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. Credit: STScI, Jaclyn Barrientes.

Planning for Science in a Pandemic

In the years of preparation leading up to Webb's launch, the institute participated in six intensive launch readiness exercises, three of them in 2021. The exercises simulated the experience of launch, deployment, and instrument commissioning, with an anomalies team throwing curveballs into each exercise to help anticipate and prepare for possible issues. The institute's efforts were a success. The team passed each exercise while gaining valuable practice and building confidence, leading directly to Webb's smooth launch and deployments in the final week of the year.

Science planning for Webb moved forward as well this year, with the Cycle 1 General Observer submission and selection, in which any astronomer worldwide could submit proposals to use Webb. A total of 286 proposals were approved, and approximately 6,000 hours of observing time were awarded to programs using the full suite of Webb's instrumentation. To prepare the astronomy community for Webb's upcoming science observations, STScI hosted more than 30 JWebbinars on 12 topics related to data analysis tools and pipeline processing of different types of its observations. These workshops are recorded for others to reference as the community awaits the first set of Cycle 1 observations in 2022.

Long dreamed-of science and discoveries we haven't even imagined are on the horizon. The mission has touched every person in every part of the institute, and it has only just begun. As Director Ken Sembach shared following launch, "The photons that will make up the first science results have entered the Solar System, on their way to Webb and to us. We can't wait to see them."

Multiple images of people in homes celebrating Webb launch
Staff held a variety of personal celebrations on launch day after date changes and a surge in COVID-19 cases led to the cancellation of planned in-person events.