As the James Webb Space Telescope continues to gradually unfurl ahead of its mission to explore the universe, NASA has dropped some exciting news about the longevity of the observatory.
Originally expected to last between five and 10 years, the space agency revealed on Wednesday that following the latest analysis of its propellant levels, the James Webb Space Telescope could be peering into deep space for “significantly” longer than a decade.
“The Webb team has analyzed its initial trajectory and determined the observatory should have enough propellant to allow support of science operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime,” the space agency said.
The update came after analysis revealed that less propellant than originally planned will be required to put Webb on course for its destination orbit around L2, a point nearly a million miles from Earth that the observatory is expected to reach toward the end of January.
NASA said the extra propellant was mainly the result of a very precise launch that carried the telescope to space on December 25. Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket “exceeded the requirements needed to put Webb on the right path,” and along with the precision of the first mid-course correction maneuver, has given Webb the best possible start to its mission.
But in a note of caution, NASA added that “many factors could ultimately affect Webb’s duration of operation.”
The spacecraft carrying Webb uses propellant not only for reaching its destination orbit but also for necessary functions during the mission’s lifetime, “including ‘station keeping’ maneuvers — small thruster burns to adjust Webb’s orbit — as well as what’s known as momentum management, which maintains Webb’s orientation in space,” the space agency explained.
Continuing the work of the venerable Hubble Space Telescope — whose own mission has so far lasted more than double the originally expected 15-year time frame — the Webb mission hopes to find out more about the origins of the universe while also searching for distant planets that may support life.
While today’s news of Webb’s potentially extended life is an exciting development, it should be noted that the telescope first has to become fully operational by perfectly executing all of the necessary deployment steps in the coming weeks.
They include the unfurling of the enormous sunshield — a process that is happening right now and expected to take several days to complete — and also the deployment of the large, golden mirror.
Only when Webb has fully deployed and reached its destination orbit will the mission team be able to relax as the telescope fires up for the first time for a highly anticipated mission that will hopefully unlock some of the secrets of the universe.