James Webb Space Telescope reaches final orbit in space
After traveling hundreds of thousands of kilometers through space over the past 29 days, NASA's revolutionary James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) performed its last major course-correcting maneuver this afternoon, finally putting itself in its work.
Launched on Christmas Day, the JWST had an eventful journey to its destination. Too big to fly into space in its final form, the telescope had to launch itself folded inside its rocket. Once it reached space, it began an extremely complex routine of shape-shifting and unfolding, a type of choreography that no spacecraft had ever performed before.
According to NASA, the space telescope performed every step flawlessly, completing its major deployments on January 8 and flourishing in its full configuration.
Why the James Webb telescope was aimed at L2
Then, this Monday (24), around 16:00 (Brasilia time), the observatory fired its onboard thrusters for about 5 minutes. It was the last of three course-correcting burns that JWST did, slowing the spacecraft down enough to put it into a very precise orbit in space.
JWST is now orbiting around an invisible point in space known as an Earth-Sun Lagrange point. It is an area of space where gravity and the centripetal forces of the Sun and Earth are right, allowing objects to remain in a relatively “stable” position.
"There's a little tug of war going on where [gravity] balances perfectly," Jean-Paul Pinaud, Delta-V ground operations leader at Northrop Grumman, JWST's main contractor, explained in an interview with The Verge. "So no one wins this tug of war."
The trail the observatory is taking around L2 is actually quite wide, extending roughly the distance between the Earth and the Moon. But it can't stay on that trajectory forever without some help. One reason is that L2 is known as “pseudo” stable, which means that objects orbiting this location will have a tendency to move away in one direction.
Properly positioned, JWST will have to make minor adjustments on its path through life. Every 20 days or so, the telescope will fire its thrusters for two to three minutes at a time to ensure it stays on track in its orbit.
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Ultimately, these adjustments will determine how long the JWST can remain active in space. When the thruster runs out in the next 10 to 20 years, that's when the observatory's mission will end.
L2 is a very attractive place for this observatory for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest advantage is how far it is from the Earth and the Sun.
Strategic point to protect the observatory
JWST was made to collect infrared light, a type of light that is associated with heat. Because of this design choice, the telescope must remain extremely cool at all times.
That's why it's equipped with a shield that will always face the Sun, a sun shield that will reflect the star's heat and keep the telescope extra frigid. Still, any nearby objects that emit heat and infrared light could spoil JWST's observations if NASA isn't careful.
By placing the telescope nearly 1.6 million km away from our planet, NASA is ensuring that infrared light coming from Earth and the Moon will not interfere with or heat the telescope.
This chapter closes the observatory's perilous journey through the cosmos, paving the way for science to finally begin. We still have to wait a little longer for JWST to start its observations.
Scientists and engineers will soon begin aligning the telescope's mirrors, testing all of its instruments to ensure they are ready to collect the first extraordinary images of the oldest stars and galaxies in the Universe.
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