After 14 long years, the JWST is finally in orbit. The space telescope is now the largest and most powerful ever launched. Lift-off was from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, in South America at 7:20 EST (12:20 GMT).
The telescope experienced the vacuum of space 3.5 minutes after its launch. About half an hour later, the launch vehicle was left behind, the solar panels unfurled, and the space telescope began its long journey to its final orbit.
JWST won’t be located in a low-Earth orbit like Hubble – it will be located at the second Lagrangian Point (or L2) of the Sun-Earth system. That’s a special position in space roughly 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) directly behind our planet, and an object placed there will go around the Sun with the Earth without falling behind.
The position is far beyond the orbit of the Moon. In fact, JWST will go past its orbit in just 3 days, slightly faster than the Apollo missions. That’s a quarter of the way to L2. The full path to orbit, also including slowing down, will take about a month.
NASA in fact is calling it the 29 days on edge. The telescope has 300 single-point failure items that must all work for the whole telescope to work. Given the distance, we can’t go back up there and fix it later or upgrade as we did with Hubble until 2009. Everything needs to work from the get-go.
The first week will see the unfurling of the sunshields that will cool down the telescope. Over the course of the 29 days, the telescope structures will be unfolding and getting ready, but things won’t be working until they cool down all the way to its low and stable temperatures. Then, for the following five months, the telescope will be tested and calibrated for its science mission, beginning in the middle of next year.
JWST will be revolutionary. Its astounding power will push our astronomical knowledge to new highs, exploring everything from exoplanets to the furthest reaches of the universe. We will learn so much more detail about the things we know, and you can certainly expect to find out many new things we do not know.
The observatory is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. It was originally dubbed Next Generation Space Telescope, and it was later named after James Webb, the former NASA administrator during the early Apollo years.
The choice of name has become controversial as the involvement of Webb in the LGBT witchhunt that saw gay and bisexual scientists and civil servants purged from US federal jobs during the McCarthy years has come to light, plus a misogynistic essay written about women serving in the armed forces.
For this reason, we refer to it as JWST rather than its full name. Thousands of astronomers have signed a petition, started by Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, astrophysicist Dr Sarah Tuttle, astronomer Dr Lucianne Walkowicz, and astrophysicist Dr Brian Nord to change its name. NASA has so far declined to do so.