After the revolutionary and successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, into space on Christmas Day, NASA announced unexpected news about the telescope’s future: The science mission will likely last “significantly longer” than 10 years – more than double the minimum time for the mission.
JWST was initially predicted to be operational for 5 to 10 years, but NASA’s latest analysis released today showed that the telescope will likely have enough propellant to support scientific operations even longer. According to NASA, the extra propellant is due to the precision of the Ariane 5 rocket that the JWST was on when it was launched into space. It’s also due to the precision of the first and second mid-course correction maneuvers — minor orbit adjustments the spacecraft has completed in the days since launch, putting it on a path to its destination a million miles from Earth.
According to NASA, the precision of these maneuvers gives the spacecraft more buoyancy that it can use to maintain its final position for observing the cosmos. However, the space agency warns that “many factors” could ultimately affect the longevity of JWST.
The potential expansion of scientific research is reminiscent of the Hubble telescope, widely regarded as the predecessor of JWST. NASA initially predicted that the Hubble telescope would last about 15 years, but it’s still working, more than 30 years later. One key difference between the two is that the Hubble Space Telescope could be maintained by astronauts while JWST is not. JWST, which collects infrared light, can image objects 10 to 100 times fainter than what Hubble can see.
The accuracy of the launch trajectory also allowed JWST to deploy its solar panel a little earlier. Following the separation of the Ariane 5 rocket, JWST’s solar panel deployment would begin approximately 33 minutes after launch. But it actually happened about 29 minutes after launch because JWST was in the right position after the separation, NASA said in its press release. Unlike the automatic deployment of solar panels, future deployments — including the spacecraft’s sunshade and parts of the primary mirror — will be human-controlled, NASA says.