NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope has seen its first major breakthrough, and the agency says it will operate “much longer” than previously expected.
And last week’s take-off and flight checks mean it has enough fuel “to support science operations for more than 10 years of scientific life,” NASA said. The minimum duration of the assignment is five years.
Space telescope science is powered in part by solar panels, which NASA says has been successfully implemented. But it also relies on a traditional thruster that allows it to steer in space.
NASA said the telescope has enough rocket fuel to not only reach its final destination – a point in space known as L2 – but also for various things that will be required of it for a long time to come. This fuel is used during maneuvering missions that NASA calls “station stops” as their orbit is modified, and other burns that keep Webb on track through space.
It was able to provide that extra fuel, thanks mainly to the precise launch of the Ariane 5 rocket that launched the telescope into space on Christmas Day. Because this procedure and subsequent repair maneuvers were so precise that they used less fuel than expected and more remained in the tanks.
And NASA said the implementation of the solar system was also possible ahead of schedule. The telescope was programmed to open when it reached a certain angle with the sun, or after 33 minutes—and because the takeoff was so precise, it was able to point in the right direction faster, unlocking about 29 minutes after launch.
Now, with the solar system deployed, the telescope will move to place other parts of the telescope, including mirrors, which will allow it to search deep into space. All of this should be done by the time it reaches its final orbit, which is expected to be about a month after launch.
NASA has indicated that all other deployments are human-controlled, which means their timing or sequence is subject to change.
When all of this detailed work is complete and all of the telescope’s components are positioned and successfully reached its final orbit, there will be months of work to ensure that the optics and scientific instruments are properly aligned and calibrated. Then the telescope will be able to search the depths of the universe to explore distant planets and understand the universe.
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