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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is a big deal. The Observatory's Dean Regas explains why

The telescope is set to launch on Friday, Dec. 24, 2021.
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
The telescope is set to launch Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021.

It's billed as the "biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built," and it's slated to launch Saturday, Dec. 25. The James Webb Space Telescope will travel one million miles from Earth and peer so far into space, it could lead to a better understanding of how the universe began.

"Its main goal is going to be looking back in time to the earliest parts of the universe," explains Dean Regas, astronomer at the Cincinnati Observatory. "The farther you look in space, the farther in time you look. It takes time for light to go from one place to another, and so the farther the object is, the farther back in time it is."

Understanding more about how the universe formed could teach us more about our own galaxy, Regas points out.

It will also look for exoplanets and at our own solar system.

NASA will livestream the launch at 6 a.m. EST. As of Dec. 22, the rocket is scheduled to take off at 7:20 a.m. EST Dec. 25.

According to NASA, the telescope will be able to see back to when the first stars and galaxies formed more than 13.5 billion years ago. It will be able to see back to 100 million to 200 million years after the Big Bang.

"Ultraviolet and visible light emitted by the very first luminous objects has been stretched or 'redshifted' by the universe's continual expansion and arrives today as infrared light," the agency explains. "Webb is designed to 'see' this infrared light with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity."

NASA is partnering with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Webb will launch from French Guiana in South America, travel to an orbit of one million miles, and spend roughly six months unfolding itself, testing systems, calibrating and getting ready. The sunshield alone is the size of a tennis court. The primary mirror is 21.3 feet across and comprised of 18 gold-plated hexagonal deployable segments.

A 'pressure-packed' moment

Not only can it see farther into space, the resolution will be much higher than Hubble with a greater sensitivity, and it will be fully adjustable in space.

"It's an amazing and ambitious project," Regas notes, adding he's more nervous than excited at this point. "What (the) Hubble (Telescope) did was really change the game and this is supposed to be even way better than that. This is a longtime project that's been delayed a lot of times and I will feel a whole lot better once it gets to its spot and starts looking. This is a pretty pressure-packed moment for astronomers right now because we've been putting a lot of effort into this telescope so our fingers are crossed, that's for sure."

Unlike Hubble, if something goes wrong with Webb it's too far away to send astronauts to fix it. The project has been in the works for two decades.

Space agencies aren't the only ones who will be using Webb. Regas points out anyone can apply for time on the telescope.

"If you have a good enough project then you can use these telescopes to find things. You just have to apply in advance - usually a year or two," he laughs. "I would love to put in some requests for this. I can't think of a project big enough. We have our historic telescopes here at Cincinnati Observatory... I need some ideas. Any listeners out there, send some ideas my way (and) maybe I can help propose something."

Watch the launch in the player below. Coverage should begin at 6 a.m. EST.

Senior Editor and reporter at WVXU with more than 20 years experience in public radio; formerly news and public affairs producer with WMUB. Would really like to meet your dog.