James Webb Space Telescope: Launch Overview

December 17, 2021

Launching the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched on December 25, 2021, to become the world’s premier space science observatory. JWST is the culmination of collaboration from engineers and scientists around the world to collect observations of planets, stars, and the formation of galaxies across the universe. This international mission will launch from Kourou, French Guiana in South America on the Ariane 5 launch vehicle developed and operated by Arianespace as part of the European Space Agency (ESA). The mission will be operated from the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD using the NASA Deep Space Network (DSN) to communicate with the spacecraft.


The James Webb Space Telescope Undergoing Preparations by Crew

The James Webb Space Telescope undergoing preparations by its crew. Source: NASA

The Flight Dynamics Experts of a.i. solutions

The a.i. solutions JWST flight dynamics team brings a variety of subject matter experts to support the pre-launch analyses, flight dynamics operations, and aspects of mission planning for the JWST project. Our launch window analyses helped to determine the optimal day and time to launch. The available launch windows for JWST are selected to conserve propellant, reduce over-burn risk given launch vehicle performance, and achieve NASA’s trajectory requirements. Our flight dynamics team uses this analysis to create backup plans that can be implemented in the event of a launch delay. Once JWST has separated from the upper stage of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle, a.i. solutions uses the Flight Dynamics Ground System (FDGS) to enable the mission to achieve its science orbit. a.i. solutions has developed the FDGS where it is predominately powered by FreeFlyer®, an a.i. solutions developed application for satellite mission analysis, design, and operations with a seasoned history of flight heritage on many missions, including the International Space Station (ISS).

The FDGS is deployed at NASA Goddard’s Space Flight Center (GSFC) Flight Dynamics Facility (FDF) in Greenbelt, Maryland. a.i. solutions engineers will be stationed here to monitor the progress of the mission, evaluate its status, and report recommendations to the Mission Operations Control (MOC) at the Science and Operations Center (S&OC) in Baltimore, Maryland. The FDGS consists of several tools providing capabilities such as Contact Analysis, Maneuver Planning, Maneuver Monitoring, Maneuver Reconstruction and Calibration, and Orbit Determination.



The Contact Analysis tool computes the windows of time each ground station antenna will be available for sustaining communication with the satellite. Because the Earth is constantly rotating, deep space missions like JWST benefit from having ground stations spread around the world. NASA’S DSN will support JWST with facilities in California, Spain, and Australia. This allows these distributed ground stations to hand over communication as they are completed by the previous station. The Maneuver Planning tool plans the maneuvers to define the safest and most fuel-efficient path to its final orbit while meeting all project requirements. Once a maneuver has been planned and executed, operators will continue supporting the mission by monitoring the burn for its entire duration. The Maneuver Monitoring tool provides a visual of a maneuver’s progress in near real-time using tracking data. The Maneuver Reconstruction and Calibration tool is a valuable post-maneuver assessment of the actual maneuver performance versus the planned maneuver performance. The Orbit Determination tool is responsible for processing tracking, attitude, and maneuver data to estimate the position and velocity of the observatory while considering the effects that solar radiation pressure (SRP) has on the spacecraft due to its large sunshield.


Front View of JWST Primary Mirror

Front view of the JWST Primary Mirror. Source: NASA

What Will Happen During JWST’s Launch and Early Orbit Phase?

During the Launch and Early Orbit Phase (LEOP) of the mission, a.i. solutions engineers at the GSFC FDF will use the FDGS to plan the three mid-course correction (MCC) maneuvers that enable the spacecraft to reach its target orbit near the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2). The a.i. solutions flight dynamics team will plan the first two MCC maneuvers to adjust the spacecraft’s velocity based upon the performance of the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Between the second and third maneuvers, a series of spacecraft hardware deployments will occur. JWST launches in a collapsed form that will unfold as it travels to L2. Its sunshield, antennas, and 6.5-meter primary mirror will all emerge during the deployment period. A second set of thrusters will be used to maneuver JWST due to the changes in the center of gravity of the spacecraft after it completes these deployments.

The a.i. solutions flight dynamics team will plan for the last MCC maneuver of JWST’s to inject the observatory into the optimal orbit for its science mission. The final orbit around L2 is almost 1,000,000 miles from Earth, almost four times the distance between Earth and our Moon. During science operations, the “bottom” of JWST, where the solar panels are located, will face the Sun to power the spacecraft. This also allows the massive five-layer sunshield to protect the primary mirror from heat and light as it looks out into deep space. A cold and dark environment will help maintain the sensitivity of the instruments onboard the observatory allowing scientists to collect the best data possible. After achieving its orbit about the Sun-Earth L2, JWST will perform stationkeeping maneuvers every 21-days planned by the FDGS to maintain science requirements.

For more details on the FDGS and flight dynamics operations supported by a.i. solutions, you can read our white paper “The JWST Flight Dynamics Operations Concept and Flight Dynamics Ground System.”

Click the image below to download the white paper.

The JWST Flight Dynamics Operations Concept and Flight Dynamics Ground System


With 25 years of expertise in flight dynamics, a.i. solution’s primary goal is to always provide our customers with the highest standards for support. Our efforts will be critical to the success of the JWST mission and we are honored to be part of this monumental step towards scientific discovery. Join a.i. solutions by watching the JWST launch on NASA TV’s live stream to see one of humankind’s most-ambitious accomplishments take flight.

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