NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has reached its final destination after a 30-day trek that began on Christmas Day.
The most powerful space telescope ever built, the tennis court-size observatory reached its destination — the second Earth-Sun Lagrange Point, or L2 — after a five-minute course correction burn.
This third and final burn, which took place at about 2 p.m. EST (19:00 UTC) Jan. 24, 2022, changed the spacecraft’s velocity by a mere 3.6 miles per hour (about 1.6 meters per second), according to NASA, which was enough to place it in a “halo” orbit around the L2 point.
“Webb, welcome home!” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson in an agency update. “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!”
According to NASA, L2 is a semi-stable point in which objects tend to stay in place with the help of the gravitational pull of the Sun and Earth. Only a minimal amount of fuel is required for the $10 billion Webb telescope to remain at the location, which is about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) “behind” Earth as viewed from the Sun.
The first images from Webb are expected by mid-summer 2022 after a planned six-month commissioning phase.
Webb’s halo orbit around the L2 point is optimal for astronomy, offering an unobstructed view of space as the telescope is able to avoid passing through Earth’s shadow. Moreover, combined with its massive sunshield, the telescope is able to get incredibly cold — around minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 223 degrees Celsius) — which is perfect for collecting as much infrared light as possible.
“We were just setting the table,” Keith Parrish, the observatory manager for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said during a press conference just after it reached its final parking space. “We were just getting on station, getting this beautiful spacecraft from unfolded and ready to do science. The best is yet to come.”
Between its Dec. 25, 2021, launch and its arrival at L2, the spacecraft unfolded from its compact launch configuration, deploying its five-layer sunshield, antennas, secondary mirror and primary mirror.
Moreover, the 18 individual gold coated hexagonal segments of Webb’s 21-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror — each about the size of a coffee table — were raised from their launch position to be readied to be fine-tuned and carefully aligned as the spacecraft prepares to collect imagery and science as it peers back to the origins of the universe.
“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,” Bill Ochs, Webb project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a NASA news release. “We are now on the verge of aligning the mirrors, instrument activation and commissioning, and the start of wondrous and astonishing discoveries.”
Video courtesy of NASA
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