Here’s what’s next for the Webb Space Telescope as it races into deep space


The Webb Space Telescope left Earth safe and sound on Christmas morning, and astronomers around the world heaved a sigh of relief. But the coming weeks contain a series of hurdles that must be overcome before the $10 billion telescope can begin its scientific tasks. Monday night, Webb officially passed the moon’s orbital distance, traveling more than half a mile per second on its journey to its final destination.

At the time of writing, the telescope is more than 305,000 miles from Earth, about a third of the way to its destination, a point in space called L2. (You can check the location of Webb . here.) The current step of deploying the telescope is what NASA calls the “second mid-course correction burn,” meaning the second uses fuel to correct the spacecraft’s orbit to its destination. The next day will begin the installation of the all-important sunshade, which will protect the astronomical data Webb collects from heat. According to NASA, this will be “one of the most challenging spacecraft deployments NASA has ever attempted.”

The sunscreen pallets will unfold over the next few days, like the wings of a butterfly emerging from a pupa. In a week, the sunshade will be fully unfolded, followed by the mirrors and mirror wings. The entire spacecraft will deploy by the end of the first week in January, but there is there’s still plenty that can go wrong with these steps, even though the most nail-biting part of the operation (the launch) is now complete.

The destination, Lagrange point 2 or simply L2, is perfect for a telescope trying to see some of the oldest stars in the universe. if noticed by NASAL2 is good for astronomy because it is relatively close to Earth and can keep the Earth, Moon and Sun behind it for an unobstructed view of the cosmos. L2 is about a million miles from Earth, so it takes the telescope a month to get there.

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The first images of Webb are expected in June 2022, assuming all goes well in the coming weeks. Scientists hope to use the telescope’s observations to learn more about the earliest era of the universe, find potentially habitable exoplanets, and better understand how galaxies form and evolve.


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