On the way to your lookout, at the second Lagrange point (L2), and waiting for you to send us your first (and desired) data – something that will not happen for several months – the James Webb Space Telescope is already leaving some positive news. Since its launch on December 25, it has already started the deployment of his sun shield and the antenna that will allow you to send 60 GB of data daily. They are small steps and they come by dropper, but they certainly point in the right direction. Perhaps the best news, for what it implies, is however the one shared by NASA on Wednesday: Webb will work longer than expected.
If you want to operate in proper conditions and preserve and correct its orbit, Webb needs fuel. As NASA remembers, the space telescope must not only orbit around the L2 point; It must also operate “station maintenance” maneuvers and “impulse management”, essential for it to be able to preserve its orientation in space.
The great handicap: fuel
The problem is that the amount of fuel available to James Webb is limited and the enormous distance at which he will operate, approximately 1.5 million kilometers, rule out any possibility of a future manned mission to repair or upgrade it. Based on these premises and in view of the available fuel, the experts calculated that the space observatory would have a useful life of between five and ten years. The essential minimum has always been set at five years; but the truth is that for a long time it has been aiming at the goal of the decade.
Now NASA does not rule out that that useful life may be longer than expected. The reason: the initial maneuvers have required less energy expenditure than the technicians initially anticipated. From the space agency there is even talk of surpass the psychological barrier of the decade.
“Due to the precision of our launch and our first two mid-way corrections, the team has analyzed its initial trajectory and determined that the observatory should have thrust to support science operations in orbit for well over a scientific lifetime. [prevista] of 10 years”. The same speech was adopted by the European space agency (ESA), which highlights the decisive role played by the Ariane 5.
Due to the precision of our launch and our first two mid-course corrections, our team has determined that Webb should have enough fuel to allow support of science operations for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime! 💫 https://t.co/1e3sWlynPI pic.twitter.com/yb4Oe6dnwj
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) December 29, 2021
The “vast majority” of the energy to send the observatory into orbit around L2 –details the US agency in an official statement— provided by the Arianne 5 rocket. Once released, the technicians had to make “minor adjustments to the trajectory.” The first maneuver, already applied on December 25 and relatively short, was 65 minutes and added 20 meters / second to the speed of the observatory. The second, on December 27, added another 2.8 meters per second. The solar array was also able to unfold 29 minutes after launch.
In view of the fuel consumed so far and the trajectory that remains pending, the NASA team concludes that “the observatory should have enough propellant to allow the support of scientific operations in orbit. for a significant period, more than a ten-year scientific life”. In any case, the agency maintains caution and recognizes that over the next few months or years there could be factors that alter the duration of the operation.
#Webb‘s precise launch on an ESA-provided @ariane5 rocket operated by @Arianespace from @EuropeSpacePort means the observatory has enough propellant for science operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year lifetime 👉 https://t.co/EglJF47ZP0 pic.twitter.com/cLyjAX8xhl
– ESA (@esa) December 29, 2021
And after that period of useful life, what?
That: What will happen after that long decade of work? “When the fuel runs out, little by little it will go out of orbit and dislodge it, that is, it will free it so that other missions can use it”, explained the astrophysicist of the European Space Agency (ESA) Macarena García to Nius Diario several days ago, when I was confident that the observatory would work for at least 10 years.
The truth is that the Webb meets a fairly high bar. Its predecessor, Hubble, has far exceeded the period for which it was originally designed: it was launched for an initial term of 15 years and has already had a service record of more than 31 years. Its successor, of course, has no However, with the important handicap that not designed to be repaired in space. NASA, in any case, –as Daniel Marín remembers in his blog Eureka– has opened the door to a robotic mission that can extend the useful life of an observatory that has cost 10 billion dollars, making it one of the most expensive and complex space missions.
Just a few days ago, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen even publicly stated that the agency could dedicate resources to robotic space missions that can refuel to Webb. One of the keys in making the decision will be the results of the observatory itself. “I am going to put all the effort into developing this technology [pero]; I am not going to start investing money before we are there ”, explained the director of the US agency in statements collected by the newspaper The Atlantic.