CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (AP) — The world’s largest and most powerful space telescope arrived at its observation post 1 million miles from Earth on Monday, a month after it lifted off, to see the dawn of the universe.
On command, the James Webb Space Telescope fired its rocket engines for nearly five minutes to orbit the Sun at the designated location, and NASA confirmed the operation went as planned.
Mirrors at the $10 billion observatory still need to be carefully aligned, infrared detectors sufficiently cooled, and scientific instruments calibrated before observations can begin in June.
But air traffic controllers in Baltimore were euphoric after chalking it up to yet another success.
“We are one step closer to unlocking the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new take on the universe this summer!” This is stated in a statement by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson.
The telescope will allow astronomers to look further into the past than ever before, all the way back to when the first stars and galaxies formed 13.7 billion years ago. It’s only 100 million years from the Big Bang when the universe was created.
In addition to observing the stars, Webb will scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.
“Webb is officially in place,” said Keith Parrish, project manager. “This is just the end of a wonderful 30 days.”
The telescope was launched from French Guiana on Christmas Day. A week and a half later, a sun visor the size of a tennis court opened up on the telescope. The gold-plated primary mirror of the instrument, 21 feet (6.5 meters) in diameter, unfolded after a few days.
The main mirror is made up of 18 hexagonal segments, each about the size of a coffee table, that need to be carefully aligned so that they look like one piece – a task that will take three months.
“It’s been a month and the baby hasn’t even opened its eyes yet,” said Jane Rigby, operations project scientist, of the telescope’s infrared instruments. “But that’s the science we’re looking forward to.”
Starting the engine on Monday propelled the telescope into orbit around the Sun at the so-called second Lagrange point, where the gravitational forces of the Sun and Earth balance each other. The 7-ton spacecraft will orbit this point, as well as the Sun. It will always face the night side of the Earth to keep its infrared detectors as cool as possible.
At 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away, Webb is more than four times as far from the Moon.
Webb is expected to be in business for more than a decade, maybe two.
Considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits at 330 miles (530 kilometers), Webb is too far away for emergency repairs. This makes the milestones of the last month – and the coming ones – even more important.
Astronauts who have gone into outer space have performed operations on the Hubble five times. The first operation, carried out in 1993, corrected the telescope’s blurry vision, a defect that appeared during the construction of the mirror on the ground.
Whether they’re chasing optical and ultraviolet light like Hubble, or infrared light like Webb, telescopes can see farther and clearer while working on Earth’s distorting atmosphere. That’s why NASA has teamed up with European and Canadian space agencies to take Webb and his mirror – the largest ever launched – into space.
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