Nasa’s new James Webb Space Telescope has made its first major breakthrough, with the agency announcing it will last “significantly” longer than previously expected.
Predicting the launch last week and its flight since then means it will have enough fuel to “support science operations for well over the 10-year lifespan of science,” Nasa said. The minimum term for the mission is five years.
The space telescope’s scientific work is powered in part by solar panels, which Nasa recently said have been used successfully. But it also relies on more traditional propellants to help it orient itself in space.
Nasa said the telescope not only has enough rocket fuel to get to its final destination – a point in space known as L2 – but also for the various things that will be asked of it for a long time. This propellant will be used throughout the life of the mission for what Nasa calls “station keeping” maneuvers as it adjusts its orbit and for other burns that keep Webb at the correct altitude in space.
It was able to retain this extra propellant largely because of the precise launch of the Ariane 5 rocket that launched the telescope into space on Christmas Day. Because that and the corrective maneuvers that followed were so accurate, less fuel was needed than predicted and more stays in the tanks.
The use of the solar system could also take place earlier than planned, said NASA. The telescope was programmed to release them either when they reached a certain angle from the Sun or after 33 minutes – and because the launch was so accurate, it was able to point the way faster, opening about 29 minutes after launch.
Now that the solar array is in place, the telescope moves to extend the other parts of the telescope, including the mirrors that allow it to look deep into space. All of this should be done by the time it reaches its final orbit, which is expected to happen about a month after launch.
The remaining deployments will all be controlled by humans, Nasa noted, meaning their timing or order could change.
With all of this detail work complete, with all parts of the telescope deployed and successfully placed in its final orbit, it will take months to ensure the optics and science instruments are all properly aligned and calibrated. After that, the telescope can look into the depths of the universe to explore distant planets and understand the cosmos.