On Christmas day, 2021, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope successfully launched into space.
On December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope launched successfully into orbit from an Ariane 5 rocket. (
: ESA-CNES-ArianeSpace/Optique Vidéo du CSG/NASA TV)
Decades of work by thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians all boiled down to one moment.
Shown during an inspection in the clean room in Greenbelt, Maryland, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is complete. It has been transported, tested, fueled, and readied for launch inside an Ariane 5 rocket. On December 25, 2021, and for about a month afterwards, it will be put to the ultimate test: launch and deployment. (
: NASA/Desiree Stover)
Ariane 5 rocket — James Webb’s launch vehicle — would fully determine the mission’s fate.
This diagram shows the WMAP trajectory and orbit pattern around the second Lagrange Point (L2). The travel time to L2 for WMAP was 3 months, including a month of phasing loops around the Earth to allow a lunar gravity-assisted boost. After WMAP reached the end of its useful life, it used the last of its fuel to boost out of its Lissajous orbit around L2 and into a “graveyard orbit,” where it will continue to orbit the Sun indefinitely. The James Webb Space Telescope needs to follow an extremely similar path. (
: NASA/WMAP Science Team)
The fuel aboard Webb, required for science operations, also performs course corrections.
Assuming a successful launch and deployment, Webb will enter orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, where it will cool, turn its instruments on, calibrate everything, and then begin science operations. Everything rests on its successfully getting there. (
Webb must stably reach its final orbit, 1.5 million km from Earth, before data-taking begins.
A rough launch-and-deployment diagram of the order-of-operations of the James Webb Space Telescope. Depending on what happens during the mission, these timetables may vary significantly, but this is the expected order of the most critical stages of initial deployment. (
A poor launch, like
this one from 2018, could’ve been catastrophic.
This 2017 launch of an Ariane 5 rocket mirrors the launch vehicle of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The Ariane 5 had a string of more than 80 consecutive launch successes before a partial failure in January of 2018. This launch, the 82nd successful one in a row before that failure, offered a preview of James Webb’s launch. (
: ESA-CNES-ARIANESPACE/Optique Video du CSG – OV)
We all watched from around the globe, knowing that the launch was critical for a long science lifetime with Webb.
Nominally rated for a 5.5-year mission, scientists worldwide hoped a pristine launch would conserve Webb’s hydrazine fuel.
A portion of the Hubble eXtreme Deep Field that’s been imaged for 23 total days, as contrasted with the simulated view expected by James Webb in the infrared. With the COSMOS-Webb field expected to come in at 0.6 square degrees, it should reveal approximately 500,000 galaxies in the near-infrared, uncovering details that no observatory to date has been able to see. While NIRcam will produce the best images, the MIRI instrument may produce the most profound data. (
: NASA/ESA and Hubble/HUDF team; JADES collaboration for the NIRCam simulation)
In the best-case scenario, Webb would retain enough for 10+ years of science operations.
When starlight passes through a transiting exoplanet’s atmosphere, signatures are imprinted. Depending on the wavelength and intensity of both emission and absorption features, the presence or absence of various atomic and molecular species within an exoplanet’s atmosphere can be revealed through the technique of transit spectroscopy. (
: ESA/David Sing/PLAnetary Transits and Oscillations of stars (PLATO) mission)
As the launch commenced, the rocket performed flawlessly,
tracing its designed trajectory perfectly at every moment.
The launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope aboard an Ariane 5 rocket traced the projected trajectory perfectly at every moment, resulting in an ideal situation for the fuel remaining for Webb’s science lifetime. (
: NASA TV/YouTube)
After the second rocket stage completed its burn, it successfully released Webb, right on target.
The final pictures that humanity will ever have of the James Webb Space Telescope itself came courtesy of a camera placed on board the final stage of the ArianeSpace rocket that launched it, as Webb drifted away in the sunlight on its way to L2. (
: NASA TV/YouTube)
Floating away in the sunlight, Webb’s solar array
triumphantly deployed, powering the observatory.
As the solar array deployed 29 minutes after launch, and ~4 minutes ahead of schedule, it became clear that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was operational and receiving power, and well on its way towards its ultimate destination. The launch was an unparalleled success. (
: NASA TV/YouTube)
Subsequent burns have put Webb on target for “
significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime,” providing an auspicious beginning to 2022.
When all the optics are properly deployed, James Webb should be able to view any object beyond Earth’s orbit in the cosmos to unprecedented precision, with its primary and secondary mirrors focusing the light onto the instruments, where data can be taken, reduced, and sent back to Earth. (
: NASA/James Webb Space Telescope team)
Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.