Orbital Insertion Burn a Success, Webb Arrives at L2

Today, at 2 p.m. EST, Webb fired its onboard thrusters for nearly five minutes (297 seconds) to complete the final postlaunch course correction to Webb’s trajectory. This mid-course correction burn inserted Webb toward its final orbit around the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point, or L2, nearly 1 million miles away from the Earth.

The final mid-course burn added only about 3.6 miles per hour (1.6 meters per second) – a mere walking pace – to Webb’s speed, which was all that was needed to send it to its preferred “halo” orbit around the L2 point.

“Webb, welcome home!” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work ensuring Webb’s safe arrival at L2 today. We’re one step closer to uncovering the mysteries of the universe. And I can’t wait to see Webb’s first new views of the universe this summer!”

Webb trajectory diagram
Click on the trajectory diagram for a full-screen version. Credit: Steve Sabia/NASA Goddard

Webb’s orbit will allow it a wide view of the cosmos at any given moment, as well as the opportunity for its telescope optics and scientific instruments to get cold enough to function and perform optimal science. Webb has used as little propellant as possible for course corrections while it travels out to the realm of L2, to leave as much remaining propellant as possible for Webb’s ordinary operations over its lifetime: station-keeping (small adjustments to keep Webb in its desired orbit) and momentum unloading (to counteract the effects of solar radiation pressure on the huge sunshield).

“During the past month, JWST has achieved amazing success and is a tribute to all the folks who spent many years and even decades to ensure mission success,” said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “We are now on the verge of aligning the mirrors, instrument activation and commissioning, and the start of wondrous and astonishing discoveries.”

Now that Webb’s primary mirror segments and secondary mirror have been deployed from their launch positions, engineers will begin the sophisticated three-month process of aligning the telescope’s optics to nearly nanometer precision.

Watch a special episode of NASA Science Live at 3 p.m. EST today to learn more about what’s next for the James Webb Space Telescope.

Webb’s Journey to L2 Is Nearly Complete

On Monday, Jan. 24, engineers plan to instruct NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope to complete a final correction burn that will place it into its desired orbit, nearly 1 million miles away from the Earth at what is called the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point, or “L2” for short.

Mathematically, Lagrange points are solutions to what is called the “restricted three-body problem.” Any two massive, gravitationally significant objects in space generate five specific locations – Lagrange points – where their gravitational forces and the centrifugal force of the motion of a small, third body such as a spacecraft are in equilibrium. Lagrange points are labeled L1 through L5 and are preceded by the names of the two gravitational bodies that generate them (the big one first).

Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2
Source: NASA/WMAP Science Team

While all Lagrange points are gravitational balance points, not all are completely stable. L1, L2, and L3 are “meta-stable’ locations with saddle-shaped gravity gradients, like a point on the middle of a ridgeline between two slightly higher peaks wherein it is the low, stable point between the two peaks, but it is still a high, unstable point relative to the valleys on either side of the ridge. L4 and L5 are stable in that each location is like a shallow depression or bowl atop the middle of a long, tall ridge or hill.

So why send Webb to orbit Sun-Earth L2? Because it is an ideal location for an infrared observatory. At Sun-Earth L2, the Sun and Earth (and Moon, too) are always on one side of space, allowing Webb to keep its telescope optics and instruments perpetually shaded. This enables them to get cold for infrared sensitivity, yet still access nearly half the sky at any given moment for observations. To view any and every point in the sky over the course of time requires merely waiting a few months to travel farther around the Sun and reveal more of the sky that was previously “behind” the Sun.

Moreover, at L2, Earth is far enough away that the roughly room-temperature heat radiating from it won’t warm up Webb. And because L2 is a location of gravitational equilibrium, it is easy for Webb to maintain an orbit there. Note that it is simpler, easier, and more efficient to orbit around L2 than to dwell precisely at L2. Furthermore, by orbiting rather than being exactly at L2, Webb will never have the Sun eclipsed by Earth, which is necessary for Webb’s thermal stability and for power generation. In fact, Webb’s orbit around L2 is larger in size than the Moon’s orbit around Earth! L2 is also convenient for always maintaining contact with the Mission Operations Center on Earth through the Deep Space Network. Other space-based observatories including WMAP, Herschel, and Planck orbit Sun-Earth L2 for the same reasons.

Generally speaking, getting a spacecraft to Sun-Earth L2 is fairly straightforward, but Webb’s architecture added a wrinkle. Karen Richon, Webb’s Flight Dynamics lead engineer, describes getting Webb to L2 and keeping it there:

“Think about throwing a ball straight up in the air, as hard as you can; it starts out very fast, but slows down as gravity pulls it back towards Earth, eventually stopping at its peak and then returning to the ground. Similar to your arm giving the ball energy to go up a few meters from the Earth’s surface, the Ariane 5 rocket gave Webb energy to go the great distance of 1.1 million kilometers, but not quite enough energy to escape Earth’s gravity. Just like the ball, Webb is slowing down, and, if we allowed it, would eventually stop and fall back towards Earth. Unlike the ball, Webb wouldn’t return to the Earth’s surface, but would be in an extremely elliptical orbit, with a perigee altitude of 300 kilometers and an apogee altitude of 1,300,000 kilometers. Utilizing thrust every three weeks or so from small rocket engines aboard Webb will keep it orbiting L2, looping around it in a halo orbit once every six months.

“So, why did the Ariane not give Webb more energy and why did Webb need course correction? If the Ariane had given Webb even a little bit too much energy than needed to get it to L2, it would be going too fast when it got there and would overshoot its desired science orbit. Webb would have to do a significant braking maneuver by thrusting toward the Sun to slow down. Not only would that big burn cost a lot of propellant, it would be impossible because it would require Webb to turn 180 degrees in order to thrust toward the Sun, which would have exposed its telescope optics and instruments directly to the Sun, thus overheating their structures and literally melting the glue that holds them together. Mounting thrusters on the telescope as a way to direct braking thrust was infeasible for a number of reasons and was never a design option.

“Therefore, Webb requested just enough energy from the Ariane rocket to ensure that we would never have to do a retro burn, but would always require a burn from the observatory to precisely make up the difference and place it in the desired orbit. The Ariane 5 targeted Webb so accurately that our first and most critical burn was smaller than we had to plan and design for, leaving more fuel for an extended mission!”

—Karen Richon, Webb Flight Dynamics lead engineer, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

A detailed breakdown of Webb’s orbit can be found here.


By Thaddeus Cesari, Webb science writer, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Webb Mirror Segment Deployments Complete

Editor’s Note: This post was updated to clarify the strength vs. stiffness of beryllium.

Last week, the Webb team began moving the observatory’s individual mirror segments out of their launch positions. Today, we hear from Erin Wolf, Webb program manager at Ball Aerospace, about the completion of that process:

“Today, the James Webb Space Telescope team completed the mirror segment deployments. As part of this effort, the motors made over a million revolutions this week, controlled through 20 cryogenic electronics boxes on the telescope. The mirror deployment team incrementally moved all 132 actuators located on the back of the primary mirror segments and secondary mirror. The primary mirror segments were driven 12.5 millimeters away from the telescope structure. Using six motors that deploy each segment approximately half the length of a paper clip, these actuators clear the mirrors from their launch restraints and give each segment enough space to later be adjusted in other directions to the optical starting position for the upcoming wavefront alignment process. The 18 radius of curvature (ROC) actuators were moved from their launch position as well. Even against beryllium’s bending stiffness per weight, which is six times greater than that of ordinary steel, these ROC actuators individually shape the curvature of each mirror segment to set the initial parabolic shape of the primary mirror.

“Next up in the wavefront process, we will be moving mirrors in the micron and nanometer ranges to reach the final optical positions for an aligned telescope. The process of telescope alignment will take approximately three months.”

—Erin Wolf, James Webb Space Telescope Program Manager, Ball Aerospace

Mirror, Mirror…On Its Way!

With major deployments complete, Webb continues its journey to its final halo orbit around L2. In the meantime, there are several smaller deployments in the next couple of weeks, which constitute the beginning of a several-month phase of aligning the telescope’s optics. This week, we have started the process of moving the mirror segments (all primary plus secondary) out of their stowed launch positions. For more details, here is Marshall Perrin from the Space Telescope Science Institute, home of the Webb Mission Operations Center:

“To support the movable mirrors during the ride to space, each of them has on its back three rigid metal pegs which can nestle into matching holder sockets in the telescope structure. Before launch, the mirrors were all positioned with the pegs held snug in the sockets, providing extra support. (Imagine Webb holding its mirrors tucked up close to its telescope structure, keeping them extra safe during the vibrations and accelerations of launch.) Each mirror now needs to be deployed out by 12.5 millimeters (about half an inch) to get the pegs clear from the sockets. This will give the mirrors ‘room to roam’ and let them be readied in their starting positions for alignment.

“Getting there is going to take some patience: The computer-controlled mirror actuators are designed for extremely small motions measured in nanometers. Each of the mirrors can be moved with incredibly fine precision, with adjustments as small as 10 nanometers (or about 1/10,000th of the width of a human hair). Now we’re using those same actuators instead to move over a centimeter. So these initial deployments are by far the largest moves Webb’s mirror actuators will ever make in space.

“And we don’t do them all at once. The mirror control system is designed to operate only one actuator at a time. That way is both simpler (in terms of the complexity of the control electronics) and safer (since computers and sensors can closely monitor each individual actuator as it works). Furthermore, to limit the amount of heat put into Webb’s very cold mirrors from the actuator motors, each actuator can only be operated for a short period at a time. Thus, those big 12.5-millimeter moves for each segment are split up into many, many short moves that happen one actuator at a time. Scripts sent from the Mission Operations Center will direct this process under human supervision, slowly and steadily moving one actuator at a time, taking turns between segments. At full speed, it takes about a day to move all the segments by just 1 millimeter. It’s about the same speed at which grass grows!

“This may not be the most exciting period of Webb’s commissioning, but that’s OK. We can take the time. During the days that we’re slowly deploying the mirrors, those mirrors are also continuing to slowly cool off as they radiate heat away into the cold of space. The instruments are cooling, too, in a gradual and carefully controlled manner, and Webb is also continuing to gently coast outwards toward L2. Slow and steady does it, for all these gradual processes that get us every day a little bit closer to our ultimate goal of mirror alignment.”

—Marshall Perrin, deputy telescope scientist, Space Telescope Science Institute

Webb Begins Its Months-Long Mirror Alignment

Webb has begun the detailed process of fine-tuning its individual optics into one huge, precise telescope.

Engineers first commanded actuators – 126 devices that will move and shape the primary mirror segments, and six devices that will position the secondary mirror – to verify that all are working as expected after launch. The team also commanded actuators that guide Webb’s fine steering mirror to make minor movements, confirming they are working as expected. The fine steering mirror is critical to the process of image stabilization.

Ground teams have now begun instructing the primary mirror segments and secondary mirror to move from their stowed-for-launch configuration, off of snubbers that kept them snug and safe from rattling from vibration. These movements will take at least ten days, after which engineers can begin the three-month process of aligning the segments to perform as a single mirror.

Following the Next Steps in Webb’s Journey

After two weeks of complex structural deployments, Webb has passed a major milestone and is now fully unfolded in space. For insight on what to expect in the months ahead and how to follow along, we hear from Alexandra Lockwood, project scientist for Webb science communications at the Space Telescope Science Institute:

“Words can’t describe the pride and excitement the Webb team is feeling right now. From engineers to scientists to IT staff to graphic designers to administrative personnel (and more!), we are all overjoyed with the incredible successes of the observatory to date. While we still have a long way to go before getting the science, the engineering feats that have been accomplished, on Earth and now in space, are awe-inspiring. They are a testament to the hard work and expertise of the international Webb team.

“Now that the action-packed deployment sequence is over, we are moving into a much slower, yet deliberate, phase of the commissioning process. In the next two weeks, we will move each of the 18 primary mirror segments, and the secondary mirror, out of their launch positions. Then five months of commissioning will include 1) further cooling of the entire observatory, and of the Mid-Infrared Instrument in particular, 2) checking and then aligning the secondary and 18 mirror segments into a single coherent optical system, first with the NIRCam instrument and then with all instruments individually and in parallel, and 3) calibrating of each of the four instruments and their many scientific modes. The novelty and variety of science that this observatory can produce requires thousands of things to be checked ahead of time. But rest assured that this summer will sizzle with the hot (nay cold?) observations we will soon be sharing!

“The team is committed to keeping you informed – even through the often slow and meticulous parts of this commissioning process. This blog will be updated weekly, and sometimes more often. Please check back to hear more status updates, in-depth explanations of Webb’s science and technology, and even some fun team anecdotes!

“We’re excited to be on this journey to #UnfoldTheUniverse with you.”

—Alexandra Lockwood, project scientist for Webb science communications, Space Telescope Science Institute

Primary Mirror Wings Deployed, All Major Deployments Complete

Today, at 1:17 p.m. EST, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope completed all of its large-scale deployments with the extension and latching of its starboard primary mirror wing. Now that the telescope is structurally fully deployed – with the secondary mirror tripod and both primary mirror wings in place – the three-month process of aligning all of Webb’s telescope optics into a precise system can now commence. Learn more.

Starboard Primary Mirror Wing Deployment Underway

The Webb mission operations team has given the ‘go-ahead’ to move forward with the extension of its starboard primary mirror panel. This is the last of the major deployments on the observatory, and its completion will set the stage for the remaining five and a half months of commissioning, which consist of settling into stable operating temperature, aligning the mirrors, and calibrating the science instruments.

Live coverage of the deployment, from the Webb Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, will stream on nasa.gov/live starting no earlier than 9 a.m. EST.

First of Two Primary Mirror Wings Unfolds

Webb’s iconic primary mirror is taking its final shape. Today, the first of two primary mirror wings, or side panels, was deployed and latched successfully. Each side panel holds three primary mirror segments that were engineered to fold back to reduce Webb’s overall profile for flight.

The process of deploying the port side mirror wing began at approximately 8:36 a.m. EST. At approximately 2:11 p.m. EST, engineers confirmed that the panel was fully secured and locked into place, and the deployment was complete.

Now that the port side wing panel is locked in place, ground teams will prepare to deploy and latch the starboard (right side) panel tomorrow. Upon completion, Webb will have concluded its major deployment sequence.

Learn more about Webb’s deployment timeline online.

Primary Mirror Deployment Has Begun

Engineers have begun the final stage of Webb’s major structural deployments: the unfolding of its two primary mirror wings. These side panels, which were folded back for launch, each hold three of the observatory’s 18 hexagonal, gold-coated mirror segments.

The team is beginning today with the mirror wing on the port (left) side of the observatory. Engineers must first release mechanisms that held the wing in place for launch, in order to allow the wing to deploy. The panel then rotates into position, a motor-driven process that takes about five minutes. Once the wing is extended, engineers begin a meticulous, two-hour process to securely latch it into place.

The deployment of the second primary mirror wing, planned for tomorrow, will follow the same process.