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$10B James Webb Space Telescope enters its final orbit, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth

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Lead image: Artist’s rendition of James Webb Space Telescope in space. Credit: Adriana Manrique Gutierrez, NASA Animator

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope lifted off on Christmas morning from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. If you want to see the launch, watch a replay of the live stream here. This Monday, nearly a month later, Webb, as NASA often refers to it, reached its final orbit around the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point, or L2, about 1.5 million kilometers (nearly 1 million miles) from Earth.

Engineers and researchers have been working on the incredible space telescope since the 1990s. The $10B project has been decades in the making, so its arrival at L2 is a truly momentous occasion for all involved. It’s also a big deal for everyone else, as JWST will join the Hubble Space Telescope in our pursuit for more knowledge about our universe and its origins.

James Webb Space Telescope trajectory map. Credit: NASA

‘Webb, welcome home!’ said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. ‘Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!’

Yes, unfortunately, ‘this summer’ hints at the fact that Webb has more work to do before it can start capturing and beaming images back to Earth. The primary mirror segments and secondary mirror have been deployed from their launch positions, so engineers are now amidst a three-month process of aligning the telescope’s sophisticated optics to ‘nearly nanometer precision.’

Webb has spent the past month working its way to L2 while unfolding its sunshield and other components. On January 19, Webb finished deploying the 18 segments that comprise its primary mirror.

The James Webb Space Telescope includes four onboard cameras, including the NIRCam, NIRSpec, NIRISS and MIRI. The telescope’s cameras can see further into the past and across more wavelengths than Hubble, so we should see even more incredible photographs and learn much more about how the first galaxies formed when Webb commences its full operations in a few months. If you’d like to learn more about the space telescope and its instruments, check out the video below from longtime DPReview reader Dr. Kevin Hainline.

Webb’s final orbit allows it an expansive view of the cosmos ‘at any given moment’ and ensures the onboard instruments stay cold enough to perform ‘optimal science.’ Webb has been making minor course corrections since its launch. The final course corrections added only about 1.6 meters per second (3.6 miles per hour) to Webb’s pace, slowly moving it into orbit around L2. The team worked hard to preserve as much fuel as possible for use over the lifetime of Webb. The JWST will need minor adjustments over time to remain in orbit. It will also need to propel itself occasionally to counteract the effects of solar radiation pressure on the telescope’s large sunshield.

‘During the past month, JWST has achieved amazing success and is a tribute to all the folks who spent many years and even decades to ensure mission success,’ said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. ‘We are now on the verge of aligning the mirrors, instrument activation and commissioning, and the start of wondrous and astonishing discoveries.’

‘Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket launches with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, Saturday, Dec. 25, 2021, from the ELA-3 Launch Zone of Europe’s Spaceport at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST or Webb) is a large infrared telescope with a 21.3 foot (6.5 meter) primary mirror. The observatory will study every phase of cosmic history—from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe.’

Caption credit: NASA; Photo credit: Bill Ingalls

The original estimate was that Webb had a good five to ten years of scientific life. However, Ariane 5 did such an excellent and precise job with the launch of Webb that NASA now believes Webb has ‘significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime.’ We can’t wait to see what the team achieves.


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