The James Webb Space Telescope is fully deployed. So what’s next for the biggest observatory off Earth?
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An artist’s illustration of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope fully unfolded. There is more work ahead after the observatory’s deployment before it begins studying the universe. (Image credit: ESA)
Work for the James Webb Space Telescope is just beginning.
On Saturday (Jan. 8), the new observatory, the largest space telescope ever built, successfully unfolded its final primary mirror segment to cap what NASA has billed as one of its most complicated deployments in space ever. The Webb mission team is now turning its attention to directing the telescope to its final destination, while getting key parts of the observatory online for its astronomy work.
Webb is expected to arrive at its “insertion location” by Jan. 23, putting it in place to fire its engines to glide to a “parking spot” called Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2 (L2) about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from our planet. If Webb gets to the right zone, it can use a minimum of fuel to stay in place thanks to a near-perfect alignment with the sun, Earth and moon.
But it’s not just maneuvers in space that the control teams will need to execute. Webb still has a lot of complex commissioning operations ahead, and NASA particularly pointed to aligning its mirror and getting its instruments ready as key milestones to watch for in the next few weeks.
Engineering teams celebrate at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore as the second primary mirror wing of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope unfolds, before beginning the process of latching the mirror wing into place, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022.
The engineering team for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope celebrates at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimor, Maryland as the observatory completed unfolding its primary mirror on Jan. 8, 2022. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)
As Webb prepares for the engine fire, team members will spend the next 15 days aligning the 18 mirror segments to “essentially perform as one mirror,” John Durning, Webb’s deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, told reporters Saturday (Jan. 8) in a press conference from Webb’s control center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
“I should say also, that Webb will start turning on the instruments in the next week or so,” Durning added. “And then after we get into L2, as the instruments get cold enough, they [engineers] are going to be starting to turn on all the various instruments.”
L2 is an ideal location for Webb to perform its work. Thanks to the great distance from the sun and a sunshield, Webb will work in the darkness required for heat-seeking infrared observations. Infrared wavelengths will allow the telescope to peer through dust to look at objects such as young exoplanets, or the interior of distant galaxies, all on its quest to understand the universe and its evolution.
Related: Where is the James Webb Space Telescope? Here’s how to track it.