'We’re One Step Closer to Uncovering the Mysteries of the Universe'

James Webb Space Telescope reaches final orbit
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Jan 24, 2022 6:09 PM CST
Most Powerful Telescope in History Reaches Final Orbit
This 2015 artist's rendering provided by Northrop Grumman via NASA shows the James Webb Space Telescope.   (Northrop Grumman/NASA via AP)

"We're one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe," a jubilant NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Monday after the James Webb Space Telescope reached its final orbit. "And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!" Engineers confirmed Monday that the most powerful telescope in history had reached its orbit around a million miles from Earth, a location beyond the moon called the second Lagrange Point, where the gravitational forces of the Earth and the sun balance each other out, allowing the telescope to remain in a fixed position relative to our planet while expending minimal fuel, the New York Times reports.

The telescope, launched Christmas Day, had already performed a series of complicated unfurling maneuvers, but the process of getting it to its final resting place may have been the most nerve-racking for flight controllers in Baltimore, the Verge reports. If the thrusters didn't move the telescope into exactly the right place, it would have been extremely difficult for NASA to communicate with the $10 billion telescope. To stay in place, the telescope will have to fire its thrusters for a few minutes every 20 days—and its mission will end when the fuel runs out in an estimated 10 to 20 years.

The Webb telescope—much bigger and more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble—still needs to have its instruments calibrated and its mirrors aligned before it can start making observations in June, the AP reports. "We're a month in, and the baby hasn’t even opened its eyes yet," said project scientist Jane Rigby. "But that's the science that we’re looking forward to.” When it is fully operational, astronomers will be able to look back 13.7 billion years, to when the first stars and galaxies were forming. The telescope will also search for signs of life in the atmospheres of distant planets. (More James Webb Space Telescope stories.)

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