How to track James Webb Space Telescope, mission timeline

Currently, more than 35,000 miles away, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is cruising through space on the way to its 1 million mile parking spot above the Earth. It will take the space telescope almost a month to complete orbital insertion. Here’s how you can track its way there.

FINAL UPDATE (1/31): James Webb is now fully deployed and orbiting in L2. The space telescope will spend the next few months commissioning and testing before taking its first photograph. Last week, NASA announced that Webb will point at HD 84406, a sun-like star 241 light-years away, to focus and align its mirrors in preparation for the moment we’ve been waiting for. Don’t hold your breath though, the mirror alignment process is very slow and tedious. We don’t expect James Webbs to take its first shot of the cosmos until around May 2022.

Quoting Eric Berger on Twitter, “…only about 10 percent of the mission risk has now been retired.” Now that JWST is safely off the Earth, the telescope will begin a busy 30 days of maneuvering, orienting, and deploying hundreds of mechanical parts, including a tennis court-sized heat shield. Needless to say, there’s still a lot of work to do before we’re officially in the clear.

Mission timline

NASA has a detailed plan to deploy the entire telescope in roughly two weeks and orbit within a month. However, the process involves hundreds of individual deployments that are human-controlled rather than automatic. This means engineers on the ground will remotely orchestrate a complex sequence of deployments and can alter the order, location, timing, and duration if needed. As of this moment, the order and approximate timing are as follows:

Time after launchEvent
~9 minutesMain stage separation
~27 minutesUpper stage separation
~30 minutesSolar array deployed Occured Dec. 25, ~7:50 a.m. EST
~12.5 hoursMidcourse correction burn (MCC 1a) Occured Dec. 25, 7:50 p.m. EST
~1 dayRelease and motion test of the gimbaled antenna assembly Occured Dec. 26, 10:00 a.m. EST
2 daysMidcourse correction burn (MCC 1b) Occured Dec. 27, 7:20 p.m. EST
3 daysForward sunshield pallet deployment
Aft sunshield pallet deployment
Completed Dec. 28, 1:21 p.m. EST
4 daysDeployable tower assembly Occured Dec. 29, ~9:00 a.m. EST
5 daysAft momentum flap Occured Dec. 30, 9:00 a.m. EST
Sunshield covers release Completed Dec. 30, 12:27 p.m. EST
6 daysSunshield port mid-boom and sunshield starboard mid-boom Completed Dec. 31, 10:13 p.m. EST
9 daysSunshield layer tensioning begins Completed Jan. 3, 10:00 a.m. EST
10 daysSunshield layer tensioning complete Completed Jan. 4, 12:00 p.m. EST
11 daysSecondary mirror deployment begins and is completed Completed Jan. 5, 11:27 a.m. EST
12 daysAft Deployed Instrument Radiator Completed Jan. 6, 8:48 a.m. EST
13 daysPort primary mirror wing deployment begins and is completed Completed Jan. 7, 2:11 p.m. EST
14 daysStarboard primary mirror wing deployment begins and is completed
Webb is fully deployed
Completed Jan. 8, ~10:30 a.m. EST
16-24 daysIndividual mirror segment movements Completed Jan. 19
29 daysMidcourse correction burn (MCC2)/L2 insertion burn
29.5 daysOrbit insertion complete. Webb is now orbiting L2. Telescope deployment complete.
End of updates. Awaiting first images from James Webb (est. May 2022)
This animation shows the nominal sequence for these deployments. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

How can I track James Webb’s live progress?

In typical NASA fashion, the space agency has put together a detailed data-driven page called Where is Webb?, which shows the status of Webb on its journey to L2 orbit. Here you can find things like distance from Earth, distance to parking orbit, progress percentage, current speed, temperature, and more.

Missed the JWST launch? No worries! Catch up with our James Webb live blog or on our Twitter.

JWST separates from first stage. Our last ever look at the telescope before it travels 1 million miles away.

Featured image credit: Adriana Manrique Gutierrez, NASA Animator

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