The Webb space telescope’s next steps on its journey into space

A representation of the James Webb Space Telescope, fully unfolded.

The Webb space telescope left Earth safe and sound during the morning of nalife, and astronomers around the world breathed a sigh of relief. But the next few weeks contain a series of obstacles that must be overcome before the $ 10 billion telescope begins to carry out its scientific tasks. On Monday night, December 27, the Webb officially passed the orbital distance of the Moon, traveling at more than 2,800 kilometers per hour on its way to its final destination.

At the time of writing, the telescope is more than 490,000 kilometers from Earth, about a third of the way to its destination, a point in space called L2. (You can check the Webb location here). The telescope’s current deployment step is what NASA calls its “second mid-course correction burnout,” that is, the second use of fuel to correct the spacecraft’s trajectory toward its destination. The next step, which takes place today (Tuesday, December 28), is the beginning of the deployment of the all-important parasol, which will protect the astronomical data that Webb collects from the heat. According to NASA, this will be “one of the most challenging spacecraft deployments NASA has ever attempted.”

The pallets of the parasols will unfold in the next few days, like the wings of a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis. In a week the sunshade will be fully unfolded, followed by the mirrors and mirror wings. The entire spacecraft will be deployed by the end of the first week of January 2022, but there are many things that can still go wrong with these steps, even though the most difficult part of the operation (the launch) is now complete.

Its destination, Lagrange point 2, also known simply as L2, is perfect for a telescope trying to see some of the oldest stars in the universe. What he pointed NASA, L2 is good for astronomy because it is relatively close to Earth and can keep the Earth, Moon, and Sun behind it for an unobstructed view of the cosmos. L2 is about 1.6 million kilometers from Earth, so it will take the telescope a month to get there.

The first images of Webb are expected in June 2022, assuming all goes well in the next few weeks. Scientists hope to use telescope observations to learn more about the universe’s earliest moments, find exoplanets potentially habitable and better understand how galaxies form and evolve.

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