The European Space Agency has released a video of the Webb Space Telescope separating from the rocket that launched it from Earth. The video may be the last view we’ll have of the $US10 ($14) billion telescope, which is currently heading for a destination 1 million miles away.
Webb is designed to see back to the earliest era of the universe in remarkable detail. It launched from French Guiana on December 25 aboard an Ariane 5 rocket, which provided thrust for about 26 minutes after liftoff. Shortly after its upper (or second) stage engine cut off, the telescope released and began to travel on its own. That is the moment depicted in the video below: Webb heading off into space like a baby bird leaving the nest.
In the video, we see the telescope’s reflective rear end. Earth is in the upper corner of the frame, with the Sinai Peninsula is visible. The telescope’s automatic deployment of its solar array begins at mark 1:10, and as the telescope departs the camera’s frame it becomes almost blindingly white, a result of reflected sunlight.
Webb’s destination is Lagrange point 2 (or L2). L2 is one of five positions at which a spacecraft can take advantage of the gravitational pulls of both Earth and the Sun to stay in place. In other words, a telescope can sit at a Lagrange point to reduce its fuel consumption and thereby extend its lifetime in space. L2 is ideal for Webb because it allows the spacecraft to keep the Sun, Earth, and Moon behind it, enabling an unobstructed view of the universe.
As of yesterday, Webb had deployed the tripod for its secondary mirror, the latest step in the telescope’s unfurling as it heads for L2. Previously, the telescope had deployed and tightened all five layers of its tremendous sunshield, which will protect the spacecraft from radiation. In about six months, Webb will begin its science mission, looking deep into the cosmos in search of discoveries.
We can only see the fully deployed telescope in renderings, as it doesn’t carry any sort of selfie cam, nor are are there plans to try to image Webb itself once it arrives at L2. At time of writing, the telescope is nearly 70% of the way to L2, according to NASA’s handy tracker, and is cruising at 0 km per second. So the ESA video is likely the last glimpse we’ll have of the craft, which is expected to operate for at least five to 10 years and reshape our knowledge of galaxies, exoplanets, and more.