Science

The James Webb Space Telescope performs a crucial maneuver to establish its path

The James Webb Space Telescope is really on its way.

The massive observatory launched today (December 25) from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7:20 am EST (1220 GMT). Just 12.5 hours later, the spacecraft began a vital maneuver on its month-long journey to its future outpost when the observatory executed a 65-minute propellant burn that concluded at 8:55 p.m. EST (0155 GMT). according to a statement. from NASA.

The space telescope is intended to orbit a point in space known as the Earth-Sun Lagrange point 2 or L2, which is almost 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth on the opposite side of the sun. . The spacecraft covered the first 10% of that trip within 12 hours of launch. Then when the telescope was about 100,000 miles (160,000 km) from Earth, the observatory ran a crucial burn to make sure it would reach its destination safely.

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According to NASA, this burn, called the Mid-Course Correction Burn 1a or MCC1a, was the most significant of the three burns the spacecraft will make during its journey to L2, and the only one that needed to be timed with special care.

A spacecraft often needs to perform a trajectory maneuver in the hours after launch to account for slight differences in where its rocket deposits machinery, yet this burn for Webb included a crucial restriction, according to NASA: the spaceship cannot slow down. because doing so would require turning around and exposing your super heat sensitive instruments to the sun.

Instead, the observatory can only increase its speed, so the observatory’s launch sequence was designed to err on the side of the Ariane 5 rocket by providing only slightly less power than required, rather than just slightly more. The burning of MCC1a was the observatory’s opportunity to fine-tune its trajectory towards L2.

Also during the first leg of the observatory’s journey, President Joe Biden recognized the teams behind the telescope for their work on the project.

“Congratulations @NASA and everyone who made today’s launch of the James Webb telescope possible,” Biden wrote in a tweet posted tonight. “Webb is a shining example of the power of what we can achieve when we dream big. We have always known that this project would be a risky endeavor, but with great risk comes great rewards.”

With the burning of MCC1a complete, the observatory has successfully executed the only two procedures that required a specific time. From now on, the deployment steps will run flexibly rather than at specific times.

That said, the next milestone in JWST’s month-long journey will occur about a day after launch, according to a NASA timeline, when the spacecraft will deploy the Gimbaled Antenna Assembly, which holds a key communications antenna, to point towards Earth.

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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