After nearly 30 years of planning and thorough work, NASA finally got to launch its $10 billion next-generation space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), on Christmas day. JWST is now headed on a long six-month trip until it can begin its science mission and start to conduct routine science operations.
Now, it turns out that JWST might be traveling and collecting data for much longer than initially expected. JWST was forecast to be operational for 5 to 10 years, but NASA’s latest analysis revealed that the observatory should have enough fuel to "allow support of science operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime."
"The analysis shows that less propellant than originally planned for is needed to correct Webb’s trajectory toward its final orbit around the second Lagrange point known as L2, a point of gravitational balance on the far side of Earth away from the Sun. Consequently, Webb will have much more than the baseline estimate of propellant – though many factors could ultimately affect Webb’s duration of operation," said the NASA statement.
According to the space agency, the extra fuel is largely due to the precision of the Arianespace Ariane 5 launch, which was extremely successful at launching Webb on the right path, as well as that of the first and second mid-course correction maneuvers.
This lifespan extension is quite similar to the Hubble telescope's journey, JWST’s predecessor. The Hubble telescope was projected to last about 15 years, but 30 years later today it is still up and running.
However, the Hubble observatory was able to be serviced by astronauts something the JWST is not. The latter is far too far for any human presence to reach it making its deployment much more risky and dangerous.
It currently has 344 single points of failure that could be triggered at any time during its unfurling causing the whole mission to be fatal. Luckily NASA has prepared for nearly three decades how JWTS will deploy and has therefore almost guaranteed that nothing will go wrong.