We all salute the Ariane 5 rocket, which doubled the life of the Webb Telescope

Zoom / An Ariane 5 rocket, with the James Webb Space Telescope, at the launch site in French Guiana.

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There were two surprisingly good news about the James Webb Space Telescope this weekend. One was widely reported – that after a complex two-week process, the telescope spread it out without any difficulties. Next steps towards more conventional scientific processes.

The other piece of news, which is not well covered but is still significant, surfaced during a press conference on Saturday. Mike Menzel, NASA’s Webb Telescope mission systems engineer, said the agency has completed its analysis of how much “extra” fuel is left aboard the telescope. Roughly, Menzel said, Webb has enough propellant on board for a 20-year life.

That’s double the conservative pre-launch estimate of Webb’s decade-old life, largely due to the performance of the European Ariane 5 rocket that launched Webb in a precise trajectory on Christmas Day.

Prior to launch, the telescope was fueled with 240 liters of hydrazine fuel and a dinitrogen oxide oxidizer. Some of that fuel was necessary to adjust the path along the flight to a stable point in space, about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, where Webb would conduct scientific observations. The remainder in Webb’s final orbit around the Lagrange stable point will be used to sustain the station and maintain its orbit.

So every kilogram of fuel saved on Webb’s trip to Lagrange Point could be used to extend its life there. Since ten years seemed like a fairly short operational period for such an expensive and capable space telescope, NASA was already considering an expensive and risky robotic refueling mission. But now this should not be necessary, since Webb has at least two decades of life.

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Much of this is due to the esteemed performance of the Ariane 5 missile. NASA and the European Space Agency reached an agreement more than a decade ago under which Europe would use the reliable Ariane 5 rocket to lift the telescope into space, and in return European scientists would get time to use the telescope.

During an interview with interplanetary podcastAriane 5 program manager Rudiger Albat explained how European rocket scientists approached the Webb launch. Every Ariane 5 is interchangeable, but the engineers and technicians involved in producing the missile know the components that run on any missile. So when they were building a part of Webb, the engineer might say, “I’ll take a second look” to make sure the piece is the best it can be.

Ariane 5 also selected the best Webb components based on pre-flight testing. For example, for the rocket intended for Webb, the program used a main engine that was particularly accurate during testing. “It was one of the best Vulcan engines we’ve ever made,” Albat said. “Her performance is very meticulous. It would have been criminal if she hadn’t done it.”

A similar attitude was taken towards other components, including the solid rocket engines that were used to build the Ariane 5 rocket launched two weeks ago.

Albatt admitted that the days leading up to the launch were stressful and nerve-wracking. But soon after launch, Albatt said he and the entire European space community could be proud when Webb flies and begins to raise his wings. Now he said, “I feel completely comfortable.” The same can be said for the many scientists who have been monitoring Webb’s evolution for two decades.

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Olga Dmitrieva

Любитель алкоголя. Возмутитель спокойствия. Интроверт. Студент. Любитель социальных сетей. Веб-ниндзя. Поклонник Бэкона. Читатель

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