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Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope, a revolutionary instrument built to peer the farthest yet into the cosmos, was launched by rocket early on Saturday from South America’s northeastern coast, opening a much anticipated new era of astronomical exploration.

The powerful $9 billion infrared telescope, hailed by Nasa as the premiere space-science observatory of the next decade, was carried aloft inside the cargo bay of an Ariane 5 rocket that blasted off at about 7:30am EST from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) launch base in French Guiana.

The flawless Christmas Day launch, with a countdown conducted in French, was carried live on a joint Nasa-ESA webcast.

If all goes as planned, the 14,000-pound instrument will be released from the French-built rocket after a 26-minute ride into space and gradually unfurl to nearly the size of a tennis court over the next 13 days as it sails onward.

Live video captured by a camera mounted on the rocket’s upper stage showed the Webb moving gently away high above the Earth as it was jettisoned. Flight controllers confirmed moments later that Webb’s power supply was operational.

Coasting through space for two more weeks, the Webb telescope will reach its destination in solar orbit one million miles from Earth — about four times farther away than the moon. And Webb’s special orbital path will keep it in constant alignment with Earth as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem.

Read more: Most powerful ever built — exploring Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope

By comparison, Webb’s 30-year-old predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, orbits the Earth from 340 miles away, passing in and out of the planet’s shadow every 90 minutes.

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