Nasa’s new James Webb Space Telescope has seen its first major breakthrough, with the agency announcing it will last “significantly” longer than previously expected.
The prevision of the launch last week, and its flight since, mean that it will have enough fuel to “allow support of science operations for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime”, Nasa said. The minimum timeline for the mission is five years.
The science work of the space telescope is powered in part by solar panels, which Nasa recently said had been deployed successfully. But it also relies on more traditional propellant to allow it to orient itself in space.
Nasa said that the telescope has enough rocket propellant not only for getting to its eventual destination – a point in space known as L2 – but also the various things that will be required of it for a long time. That propellant is used through the life of the mission for what Nasa calls “station keeping” manoeuvres, as it adjusts its orbit, and for other burns that keep Webb the right way up in space.
It has been able to keep that extra propellant largely because of the precise launch of the Ariane 5 rocket that launched the telescope into space on Christmas Day. Because that and the correction manoeuvres that followed had been so accurate, less fuel than predicted was required and more is left in its tanks.
The deployment of the solar array was also able to happen ahead of schedule, Nasa said. The telescope was programmed to deploy them either when it reached a certain angle towards the Sun or after 33 minutes – and because the launch was so accurate, it was able to point the right way more quickly, opening about 29 minutes after launch.
Now that solar array is deployed, the telescope will move to deploy the other parts of the telescope, including the mirrors that will let it look deep into space. All of that should be done by the time it reaches its eventual orbit, which is expected to happen about a month after launch.
The remaining deployments are all human-controlled, Nasa noted, meaning that their timing or order could change.
When all of that detailed work is complete, with the telescope’s pieces all deployed and it successfully in its eventual orbit, there will be months of work to ensure that the optics and scientific instruments are all properly aligned and calibrated. After that, the telescope will be able to get to work peering into the depths of the universe, with the aim of exploring distant planets and understanding the cosmos.