The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope should be able to perform science in space for longer than its planned 10-year lifespan.
The partners in the mega telescope project, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), European Space Agency (ESA) and Canadian Space Agency (CSA), delivered the update on December 29, 2021.
The mission had a planned lifespan of 10 years, with five years of operation guaranteed as a minimum, but after analyzing Webb’s initial trajectory, according to, “the observatory should have enough fuel to allow support for scientific operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year life…”
Webb is said to have used less propellant than originally planned to be directed towards his home in space – Lagrange point 2 (L2). It happened due to the “precise launch” of the spacecraft aboard the French Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket.
Webb was successfully launched from Europe’s spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7:20 Eastern Standard Time (EST) on December 25th. The flight ran for about 27 minutes before the spacecraft’s disassembly phase began. ()
Two of the three planned midway correction maneuvers followed the launch. The first was “a relatively small, 65-minute incineration” that started after lift-off to increase the observatory’s speed by about 20 meters per second.
The second course correction took place 60 hours after launch, on December 27, leading to a further increase in observatory speed by about 2.8 meters per second.
As a result, Webb is heading towards L2. It will take the spacecraft just under a month to get there.
Named after the Italian-born mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, the Lagrange point is a place in space where the gravity of the Sun and Earth balances the orbit of a satellite. A spacecraft at this time remains in a fixed position relative to the Sun and Earth.
There are five Lagrange points in total, and L2, where Webb will settle for his scientific life, 15 lakh kilometers (km) from Earth, is one of them.
L2 is not a fixed point, but follows the Earth around the Sun. Webb will not occupy the prized L2 space, but rather circles about it facing away from the Sun.
After six months (from launch), Webb will start collecting scientific data. Immediately after, the first images of science will begin to seep down to the scientific community and the wider public.
But now is an important phase. On December 30, the observatory’s first major structural deployments are completed.
“There are 50 major rollouts that are transforming Webb from its hidden, launch configuration to an operational observatory,” said Michael McElwain, Webb Observatory’s project researcher, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in an update.
There is enough fuel for further midway corrections, if necessary, and for insertion into circuits around L2. But that’s not all – the fuel on board can be used for various purposes in the future, such as for thruster fires to adjust Web’s position in orbit, to maintain the observatory’s orientation in space, and to set up the telescope with specific celestial objects.
The James Webb Telescope follows in the footsteps of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Herschel Space Observatory.
Webb’s mirror, 6.5 meters across and consisting of 18 hexagonal, gold-plated mirror segments, is in itself almost twice as large as the Herschel Space Observatory. In addition, Web’s sensitivity is 100 times greater than that of the Hubble Telescope.
While Hubble has primarily operated in the visible light spectrum, Webb will also use infrared vision. Therefore, in collaboration with Hubble, this next-generation telescope promises to uncover new details about the universe that will transform our understanding.
According to ESA, Webb will allow scientists to directly observe the first stars and galaxies that formed in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago. This is a period not long after the Big Bang.
When the light from these objects falls on Webb, the observatory will capture this information, which was coded many years ago. It will give the effect of looking far back in time, and therefore act as a time machine.
Data obtained from Webb will shed light on the functioning of the black holes in the early universe – especially their formation and development, and how they, if at all, contributed to the creation of the universe over time.
In addition, questions about the life cycle of stars, galaxies, the formation and evolution of planetary systems (including our solar system) and exoplanets, as well as possible life-producing ingredients such as can be found in the atmospheres of exoplanets, be explored.
“Webb will search for atmospheres similar to Earth’s and for the signatures of key substances such as methane, water, oxygen, carbon dioxide and complex organic molecules in the exciting hope of finding the building blocks of life,” says ESA.