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James Webb Space Telescope's smooth launch extended its life expectancy, NASA says

The observatory's trouble-free Christmas Day launch and two early course corrections could push its operational life well past the 10-year mark, the agency said.

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A smooth launch on Christmas Day could help the James Webb Space Telescope remain in orbit for more than a decade, NASA says.
NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope should be able to remain in orbit for more than 10 years, thanks to a fuel-efficient launch on Christmas Day, according to NASA.

The telescope was carried aboard the Arianespace Ariane 5. Despite two brief midcourse corrections, its launch used less propellant than initially expected. That will allow the $10 billion observatory "science operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime," the US space agency said in a release on Wednesday

The first midcourse correction was a relatively minor, 65-minute post-launch burn, which bumped up the telescope's speed by approximately 45 miles per hour. 

Another smaller correction on Dec. 27 added an additional 6.3 mph.

That added boost also allowed the JWST's solar array to unfold about a minute and a half after it separated from the Ariane 5, just 29 minutes after launch. The array was coded to automatically deploy either when the observatory reached a certain altitude or 33 minutes after launch, whichever came first.

Additional fuel will be used for what NASA calls "station-keeping" maneuvers -- small thruster blasts to adjust Webb's orbit once it reaches its destination on the far side of Earth -- in an area known as the second Lagrange point, or L2. It's a million-mile journey and is expected to take about six months. 

Once there, it will begin sending back to Earth unfiltered images of the farthest and oldest reaches of the galaxy, about 13.7 billion light-years away -- that's 13.7 billion years back in history, only 100 million years after the Big Bang. It's a quantum leap forward from the Hubble telescope, which launched in 1990 along with the Discovery space shuttle.

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A comparison of Hubble's visible and infrared views of the Monkey Head Nebula. While Hubble has some infrared capabilities, it's nothing compared to Webb.

NASA and ESA

The Webb telescope overcame a laundry list of unexpected delays and setbacks before its Dec. 25 blast-off, but NASA indicated many other factors could determine its ultimate operational lifetime.

Here's a look at the impressive tech used in the groundbreaking telescope.

James Webb Space Telescope specs

A 3D rendering of how James Webb will look in space once fully deployed.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

 
Primary mirror: 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) across, with 18 gold-plated hexagonal segments that collect infrared light. NASA calls it a "light bucket."

Sunshield: A five-layer metal umbrella the size of a tennis court to protect the probe from the heat of the sun, the Earth and the moon.

Near-infrared camera (NIRCam): Webb's primary imager will detect the earliest stars and galaxies that formed.

Near-infrared spectrograph (NIRSpec): This tool can use infrared information to inform scientists on physical properties such as the chemical composition and temperature of galactic bodies.

Mid-infrared instrument: This has both a camera and spectrograph that can detect objects in the mid-infrared electromagnetic region.

Near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph (NIRISS): This one's thought to be particularly useful in exoplanet detection.

Fine guidance sensor: Used for navigation.