The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is currently traveling through space on its way to its destination after launching from Europe’s spaceport in the South American territory of French Guiana on December 24, 2021.
A joint collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, Webb is the largest and most powerful space observatory ever built, and promises to revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
But where is the telescope headed at the moment, and how fast is it moving?
Web’s final destination is a particular point in space known as the second Lagrange point or L2, which is located approximately 930,000 miles away from Earth in the exact opposite direction from the sun.
Unlike the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope, which orbits our planet, JWST will technically be in orbit around the sun.
The second Lagrange point is special because it allows the telescope to stay in line with the Earth as it moves around the sun. This allows the JWST’s large sun visor to protect the telescope from light and heat from the sun, earth and moon.
The importance of shield and infrared
This is important because the Web telescope primarily observes the universe in infrared light and therefore must be shielded from bright, hot sources that may interfere with observations. For JWST’s solar shield to be effective for this job, the observatory must be in an orbit where the sun and earth are in approximately the same direction, which is what L2 offers.
“A major advantage of deep space (like L2) over Earth’s orbit is that we can radiate heat away,” Jonathan Gardner, deputy senior project researcher at the Webb Telescope mission and head of the Observational Cosmology Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.
“Webb works in the infrared, which is heat radiation. To see the infrared light from distant stars and galaxies, the telescope must be cold. Webb’s large sunshade will protect it from both sunlight and ground light, so it can cool down to 225 degrees below zero. Celsius (-370 Fahrenheit). “
L2 is also the “perfect place to park” the observatory due to the fact that the point is a “wonderful gravity accident,” according to NASA.
There are five Lagrange points – areas where the gravitational pull of the sun and Earth balances a satellite’s orbital motions. Placing a spacecraft at any of these points allows it to remain in a fixed position relative to the Earth and the sun, while using a minimal amount of energy – in the form of rocket shocks – to help it stay in place.
In essence, Webb will be locked in perfect harmony with the Earth’s annual orbit around the sun.
Although JWST will be further out than Earth, the combined gravity of the sun and our planet will mean that the telescope will be able to follow the Earth all year round.
The other advantage of L2 is that Webb can be in constant communication with Earth, as the observatory will always be in the same place relative to our planet.
The journey is coming to an end
Webb is currently 18 days into a 29-day trip to L2, though it has already completed about 82 percent of the distance, according to NASA’s tracker.
The observatory traveled at much higher speeds earlier in the trip, as it traveled most of the distance. After separating from its launch vehicle, the JWST began to brake rapidly, and it now runs at a cruising speed of about 0.2 miles per second towards the L2, or about 720 miles per hour.
This is because the gravity of the Earth and the sun slows down the observatory as it moves away from our planet. Since the rocket that propelled Webb into space used its fuel, the spacecraft has been idling. You can think of its journey towards the L2 as a person on a bike going uphill while no longer stepping on the pedals.
“Getting Webb to his orbit around L2 is like reaching the top of a hill by only stepping on the pedals of a bike at the very beginning of the climb, which generates enough energy and speed to use most of the way. on driving up the hill to slow down to a stop and barely reaching the top, “NASA said in a fact sheet.
The telescope has already fully deployed its 21-foot, gold-plated primary mirror – and is completing its last major rollout. Over the next five months, the telescope will be fine-tuned and calibrated before beginning scientific operations.
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