NASA took a big step forward with the James Webb Space Telescope this weekend. After completing hundreds of steps with painstaking precision, the telescope has been fully deployed. He’s still on his way to his final destination, but NASA has confirmed he will be doing science for a long time. NASA has finished calculating the numbers and its perfect launch means Webb should have enough fuel for 20 years of operation.
Last week, NASA announced that it had completed deploying the observatory’s massive sunshade. Last weekend, the agency confirmed that the main mirror wings fell into place to complete the deployment. And that’s it – Webb is now in his final operating conformation. He’s still on his way to the Earth-Sun Lagrange point L2 over a million kilometers from Earth, and once there he’ll be able to do science longer than we previously dared hope. .
Part of the reason for all the nail bites in recent weeks is that Webb has had to go through all of those complicated origami steps. Usually the most dangerous part is the launch. One mistake and the $ 10 billion telescope could have been shattered into shrapnel, but it would have been just as useless if the sun visor had been damaged during deployment. The spacecraft had to be folded up to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket, but going with the ESA vehicle turned out to be a smart move.
#NASAWebb is fully deployed! ??
With the successful deployment and locking of our latest mirror wing, it’s:
50 major deployments, completed.
178 pins, released.
20+ years of work, completed.
– NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) January 8, 2022
At a press event on Saturday to discuss Webb’s successful deployment, NASA Mission Systems Engineer Mike Menzel explained Webb’s updated timeline. After launch, NASA said Ariane 5 delivered Webb exactly on target, preventing the spacecraft from using too much of its own fuel on its way to L2. Now NASA thinks Webb’s lifespan will be double thanks to the precision launch.
Webb carries 240 liters of hydrazine fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. It uses this fuel for heading adjustments on its way to L2, and once there it will help the observatory maintain its position (called station keeping) and adjust its bearing for observations. Once the fuel runs out, Webb won’t even be able to keep the sun visor pointed the right way. NASA built Webb to last at least five years, with ten being a plausible upper limit.
The James Webb Space Telescope is unique, which is why the ESA team made modifications to Ariane 5 to support it. It was no secret, so NASA surely knew that the extended mission was possible. Still, it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver. And boy, did they do it. Twenty full years with Webb making deep space observations could revolutionize astronomy even more than Hubble did.
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