(By NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – https://www.flickr.com/photos/nasawebbtelescope/51774831484/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=113644760)
Did you know today is Isaac Newton’s birthday? Happy Newtonmas!
The James Webb telescope is going to see galaxies so far away their light has been shifted into the infrared. This will enable us to view the universe at just a couple hundred million years after the Big Bang.
It will be launched to the L2 LaGrange point, a million miles farther from the sun from the Earth. This is one of the LaGrange points, positions where a satellite will “stay put” relative to Earth. It will cycle around that point, always staying the same distance and not wander off into an independent orbit. A sun-shield the size of a tennis court will keep the sensors cool. They have to be cooled to 7 degrees above absolute zero to keep the thermal noise down. Webb sees in the infrared while Hubble, which sees in visible light, does not need such cooling.
Webb will be so far out there is currently no capability to repair it. Hubble has been repaired by humans twice in its history. It is likely that some method could be improvised should it be needed but that depends on exactly what went wrong. Not everything can be repaired. The mission is expected to last 6 years. This observatory has been in development since 1996 and cost $10 billion to produce, not including launch and tracking costs. Even forgetting all that, given the science it will produce I think it would be a terrible shame not to do everything possible to keep it alive and extend the mission indefinitely.
In the meantime, just enjoy it for being the amazing thing that it is. When the world’s nations put their brightest minds to it there is nothing humans can’t do. It still has a long and perilous road ahead (“29 days on edge”) until it reaches station. Assuming no major glitches happen, it is probably our greatest space achievement since the Apollo landings.