When the Webb Space Telescope successfully launched from Earth on Saturday, most everyone was just relieved that it didn’t blow up in the process. But now there’s even better news: The launch was precise enough that the spacecraft may have enough propellant to continue its scientific operations for longer than planned.
Webb will take images of some of the oldest light in the universe, as well as nearer objects like exoplanets. The telescope lifted off from a European Space Agency launchpad in French Guiana on December 25 and is currently over 579,364 km from Earth, travelling away from us at a speed of half-a-mile per second. Webb is now about 40% of the way to its final destination, a place called Lagrange point 2. L2 is a point in space that naturally allows spacecraft to use minimal amounts of fuel to stay in a stable position relative to Earth and the Sun.
According to a new ESA release, the launch of Webb was so precisely aimed at L2 that less fuel than expected will be needed to correct the telescope’s course the rest of the way. Webb has so far used rocket propellant to correct its course twice and will burn more to get into orbit at L2.
Once the spacecraft is in position, it will occasionally use fuel to maintain its position and orientation in space, as well as to turn to peer at specific regions of space. The minimum baseline for the Webb mission was five years, but the recent analysis of the launch indicated that Webb may be able to conduct operations at L2 for over a decade.
Parallels could be drawn to the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched from Earth in 1990 and has given humanity a remarkable 30 years of observations. Though the telescope has stuttered, especially recently, it is a testament to human engineering that the spacecraft has lasted as long as it has. Here’s hoping we’ll be able to say the same for Webb.