The James Webb Space Telescope has reached its new home at last

Next on the to-do list: Cool down. Straighten out. Turn everything on. Take a look around

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope fully deployed

The James Webb Space Telescope launched in a compact, folded position, gradually unfurling in space. This artist’s illustration shows the fully deployed spacecraft as it will look when it’s ready to start observing the universe.

Adriana Manrique Gutierrez/CIL/NASA GSFC

The James Webb Space Telescope has finally arrived at its new home. After a Christmas launch and a month of unfolding and assembling itself in space, the new space observatory reached its final destination, a spot known as L2.

Guiding the telescope to L2 is “an incredible accomplishment by the entire team,” said Webb’s commissioning manager Keith Parrish in a January 24 news conference announcing the arrival. “The last 30 days, we call that ’30 days on the edge.’ We’re just so proud to be through that.” But the team’s work is not yet done. “We were just setting the table. We were just getting this beautiful spacecraft unfolded and ready to do science. So the best is yet to come,” he said.

The telescope can’t start doing science yet. “We’re a month in and the baby hasn’t even opened its eyes yet,” said Jane Rigby of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Everything we’re doing is about getting the observatory ready to do transformative science. That’s why we’re here.”

There are still several months’ worth of tasks on Webb’s to-do list before the telescope is ready to peep at the earliest light in the universe or spy on exoplanets’ alien atmospheres (SN: 10/6/21).

“That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong,” says astronomer Scott Friedman of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who is managing this next phase of Webb’s journey. “Everything could go perfectly, and it would still take six months” from launch for the telescope’s science instruments to be ready for action, he says.

Here’s what to expect next.

Life at L2

L2, technically known as the second Earth-sun Lagrange point, is a spot about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the direction of Mars, where the sun’s and Earth’s gravity combine to provide the inward-pulling centripetal force needed to keep a smaller object on a curved path. That lets objects at Lagrange points stay put without much effort. Pairs of massive objects in space have five such Lagrange points.

The telescope, also known as JWST, isn’t just sitting tight, though. It’s orbiting L2, even as L2 orbits the sun. That’s because L2 is not precisely stable, Friedman says. It’s like trying to stay balanced directly on top of a basketball. If you nudged an object sitting exactly at that point, it would be easy to make it wander off. Circling L2 in 180 days as L2 circles the sun in a “halo orbit” is much more stable — it’s harder to fall off the basketball when in constant motion. But it takes some effort to stay there.

“JWST and other astronomical satellites, which are said to be at L2 but are really in halo orbits, need propulsion to maintain their positions,” Friedman says. “For JWST, we will execute what we call station keeping maneuvers every 21 days. We fire our thrusters to correct our position, thus maintaining our halo orbit.”

The amount of fuel needed to maintain Webb’s home in space will set the lifetime of the mission. Once the telescope runs out of fuel, the mission is over. Luckily, the spacecraft had a near-perfect launch and didn’t use much fuel in transit to L2. As a result, it might be able to last more than 10 years, team members say, longer than the original five- to 10-year estimate.

“We’re very, very happy with our estimated lifetime. It’s going to extensively exceed our 10 years,” said Parrish in the Jan. 24 news conference. The team will put an exact number on that lifetime over the next few months. “Everybody’s going to be really thrilled by it. It’s just a degree of how thrilled,” he said.

Webb’s final destination is a spot in space called L2, about 1.5 million kilometers away from Earth. The telescope will actually orbit L2 as L2 orbits the sun (as shown in this animation). This special “halo orbit” helps the spacecraft stay in place without burning much fuel.

Webb has one more feature that helps it stay stable. The telescope’s gigantic kitelike sunshield, which protects the delicate instruments from the heat and light of the sun, Earth and the moon, could pick up momentum from the stream of charged particles that constantly flows from the sun, like a solar sail. If so, that could push Webb off course. To prevent this, the telescope has a flap that acts as a rudder, said Webb sunshield manager Jim Flynn of Northrup Grumman in a January 4 news conference.

Cooling down

Webb sees in infrared light, wavelengths longer than what the human eye can see. But humans do experience infrared radiation as heat. “We’re essentially looking at the universe in heat vision,” says astrophysicist Erin Smith of Goddard Space Flight Center and a project scientist on Webb.

That means that the parts of the telescope that observe the sky have to be at about 40 kelvins (–233° Celsius), which nearly matches the cold of space. That way, Webb avoids emitting more heat than the distant sources in the universe that the telescope will be observing, preventing it from obscuring them from view.

Most of Webb has been cooling down ever since the telescope’s sunshield unfurled on January 4. The observatory’s five-layer sunshield blocks and deflects heat and light, letting the telescope’s mirrors and scientific instruments cool off from their temperature at launch. The sunshield layer closest to the sun will warm to about 85° Celsius, but the cold side will be about –233° Celsius, Parrish said in a January 4 webcast.

“You could boil water on the front side of us, and on the backside of us, you’re almost down to absolute zero,” Parrish said.

One of the instruments, MIRI, the Mid-Infrared Instrument, has extra coolant to bring it down to 6.7 kelvins (–266° Celsius) to enable it to see even dimmer and cooler objects than the rest of the telescope. For MIRI, “space isn’t cold enough,” Smith says.

Aligning the mirrors

Webb finished unfolding its 6.5-meter-wide golden mirror on January 8, turning the spacecraft into a true telescope. But it’s not done yet. That mirror, which collects and focuses light from the distant universe, is made up of 18 hexagonal segments. And each of those segments has to line up with a precision of about 10 or 20 nanometers so that the whole apparatus mimics a single, wide mirror.

Webb will train each of its 18 mirror segments on a single bright star called HD 84406, in the constellation Ursa Major. It’s “just near the bowl of the big dipper. You can’t quite see it with your naked eye but I’m told you can see it with binoculars,” Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at Goddard said at the January 24 news conference.

Starting on January 12, 126 tiny motors on the back of the 18 segments started moving and reshaping them to make sure they all match up. Another six motors went to work on the secondary mirror, which is supported on a boom in front of the primary mirror.

Before the James Webb Space Telescope can start observing the universe, all 18 segments of its primary mirror need to act as one 6.5-meter mirror. This animation shows the mirror segments moving, tilting and bending to bring 18 separate images of a star (light dots) together into a single, focused image.

This alignment process will take until at least April to finish. In part, that’s because the movements are happening while the mirror is cooling. The changing temperature changes the shape of the mirrors, so they can’t be put in their final alignment until after the telescope’s suite of scientific instruments are fully chilled.

Once the initial alignment is done, light from distant space will first bounce off the primary mirror, then the secondary mirror and finally reach the instruments that will analyze the cosmic signals. But the alignment of the mirror segments is “not just right now, it’s a continuous process, just to make sure that they’re always perfectly aligned,” Scarlin Hernandez, a flight systems engineer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said at a NASA Science Live event on January 24. The process will continue for the telescope’s lifetime.

Calibrating the science instruments

While the mirrors are aligning, Webb’s science instruments will turn on. Technically, this is when Webb will take its first pictures, says astronomer Klaus Pontoppidan, also of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “But they’re not going to be pretty,” Pontoppidan says. The telescope will first test its focus on a single bright star, bringing 18 separate bright dots into one by tilting the mirrors.

After a few final adjustments, the telescope will be “performing as we want it to and presenting beautiful images of the sky to all the instruments,” Friedman says. “Then they can start doing their work.”

These instruments include NIRCam, the primary near-infrared camera that will cover the range of wavelengths from 0.6 to 5 micrometers. NIRCam will be able to image the earliest stars and galaxies as they were when they formed at least 12 billion years ago, as well as young stars in the Milky Way. The camera will also be able to see objects in the Kuiper Belt at the edge of the solar system and is equipped with a coronagraph, which can block light from a star to reveal details of dimmer exoplanets orbiting it.

Next up is NIRSpec, the near-infrared spectrograph, which will cover the same range of light wavelengths as NIRCam. But instead of collecting light and turning it into an image, NIRSpec will split the light into a spectrum to figure out an object’s properties, such as temperature, mass and composition. The spectrograph is designed to observe 100 objects at the same time.

MIRI, the mid-infrared instrument, is kept the coldest to observe in the longest wavelengths, from 5 to 28 micrometers. MIRI has both a camera and a spectrograph that, like NIRCam and NIRSpec, will still be sensitive to distant galaxies and newborn stars, but it will also be able to spot planets, comets and asteroids.

And the fourth instrument, called the FGS/NIRISS, is a two-parter. FGS is a camera that will help the telescope point precisely. And NIRISS, which stands for near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph, will be specifically used to detect and characterize exoplanets.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s science instruments are stored behind the primary mirror (as shown in this animation). Light from distant objects hits the primary mirror, then the secondary mirror in front of it, which focuses the light onto the instruments.

First science targets

It will take at least another five months after arriving at L2 to finish calibrating all of those science instruments, Pontoppidan says. When that’s all done, the Webb science team has a top secret plan for the first full color images to be released.

“These are images that are meant to demonstrate to the world that the observatory is working and ready for science,” Pontoppidan says. “Exactly what will be in that package, that’s a secret.”

Partly the secrecy is because there’s still some uncertainty in what the telescope will be able to look at when the time comes. If setting up the instruments takes longer than expected, Webb will be in a different part of its orbit and certain parts of the sky will be out of view for a while. The team doesn’t want to promise something specific and then be wrong, Pontoppidan says.

But also, “it’s meant to be a surprise,” he says. “We don’t want to spoil that surprise.”

Webb’s first science projects, however, are not under wraps. In the first five months of observations, Webb will begin a series of Early Release Science projects. These will use every feature of every instrument to look at a broad range of space targets, including everything from Jupiter to distant galaxies and from star formation to black holes and exoplanets.

Still, even the scientists are eager for the pretty pictures.

“I’m just very excited to get to see those first images, just because they will be spectacular,” Smith says. “As much as I love the science, it’s also fun to ooh and ahh.”   

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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