James Webb Space Telescope Reaches Final Destination 1 Million Miles From Earth
CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — The world’s biggest, most powerful space telescope reached its final destination 1 million miles from Earth on Monday, a month after it lifted off on a quest to behold the dawn of the universe.
NASA verified that the James Webb Space Telescope’s rocket thrusters were fired for almost five minutes by the telescope to launch it into orbit around sun-synchronous orbit.
To allow science to begin in June, scientists will need to ensure that the telescope’s mirrors are aligned correctly and infrared detectors have been sufficiently chilled. Baltimore flight controllers were happy to have achieved another successful mission.
“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!” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.
Astronomers will be able to see further back in time with the telescope, all the while looking back at the beginning of the formation of the stars and galaxies 13.7 billion years ago. That’s a mere 100 million years from the Big Bang, when the universe was created.
Webb is not only a stellar observer, but he will also scan alien planets’ atmospheres looking for signs of life.
In January of this year, a sunshield nearly as large as a tennis court was opened on the telescope. This happened 1 1/2 weeks after Christmas Day’s launch from French Guiana. The observatory’s gold-coated mirror—21 feet (6.5 meters) across—unfolded a few days later.
Monday’s engine firing put Webb into orbit around the sun at the so-called second Lagrange point, where the gravitational forces of the sun and Earth balance. The 7-ton spacecraft always faces Earth’s night side to keep its infrared detectors as frigid as possible.
Webb lies more than 4000 miles (4 million kilometers) from Earth.
Webb, considered the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope (which orbits 335 miles above the Earth), is far too distant for any emergency repairs. That makes the milestones over the past month—and the ones ahead—all the more critical.
Five times Hubble surgery was performed by spacewalking astronauts. The first operation, in 1993, corrected the telescope’s blurry vision, a flaw introduced during the mirror’s construction on the ground.