What are the sources of light at L2? How will the James Webb telescope be powered?

The James Webb space telescope will be positioned very close to L2. According to JPL, Webb will have a large solar-array to power itself. I don't understand how this works, since L2 is positioned "behind" the earth relative to the sun.

• How big is the Earth from a million miles away? Nov 3, 2017 at 17:04
• @OrganicMarble Based on my calculations, from the perspective of L2, the earth will block out an object of diameter maximum 1.28 million km (at the distance of the sun). However the sun is 1.39 million km in diameter. So is that it? Does the Webb telescope draw its power from the sun that is not blocked by the earth? Nov 3, 2017 at 17:41
• @BlackSheep, There is still some "antumbra+penumbra" near Sun-Earth L2; and JWST orbit (and launch window) is constrained not to enter into them for 10.5 years due to power and thermal stability requirements - ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20160001318 "*Lunar / Earth Eclipse - None allowed - Requirements/ Constraint Driver(s) - Power and Thermal"
– osgx
Jan 22, 2018 at 4:05

The planned orbit for the JWST is quite a large halo orbit around Sun-Earth L2. It's very roughly elliptical, with dimensions of about +/- 350,000 km "vertically" (perpendicular to the Earth's orbital plane) and about +/- 750,000 km "horizontally" (in the Ecliptic plane).

You can see a drawings in (for example) James Webb Space Telescope Initial Mid-Course Correction Monte Carlo Implementation using Task Parallelism and also in Stationkeeping Monte Carlo Simulation for the James Webb Space Telescope, shown below. The period of the larger Sun-Earth L1 and L2 halo orbits are roughly six months, or about half of the Sun-Earth orbital period.

In this answer I've plotted an example of a potential orbit, done in roughly 2012 and found in the JPL Horizons database. Included those as well.

So the JWST won't get close enough to the Sun-Earth line to even consider the issue. But if you wanted to do the math, then yes IF the JWST was in an orbit that took it very close to the Earth-Sun line, it could get partially but very significantly eclipsed by the Earth's shadow and the light from the Sun would be dramatically reduced. It wouldn't go to zero, and so if it shut down most systems it might survive this, but it's not going to happen.

above: From here. Figure 2. A sample trajectory for the JWST observatory in the RLP frame (the Sun is located along the –x axis). The orbit of the Moon appears for scale in the top two plots. L2 is approximately 235 Earth radii (Re) from the Earth.

above: From here. Figure 1. Plots of the JWST Design Reference Mission LPO about SEM L2. The top plot gives a skew 3D view, while the bottom plot gives a view of the RLP xy-plane. The orange line in the top view is the direction of the Sun from Earth.

I've added these here because the axes are labeled in kilometers, not Re (Earth radii).

In JPL Horizons there is a sample calculation of a Halo orbit for JWST that was done in 2014. It orbits for about eleven years, and presumably includes small station-keeping maneuvers to do so. This real-world orbit is more complex than a pure CR3BP (Circular Restricted Three-body problem) halo orbit because the Earth is in an elliptical orbit around the Sun, and the Moon adds further perturbations.

The first figure below shows the complete, eleven-year orbit with it's final wander away from L2 when station keeping ends. This is a "top-down" view of the Ecliptic plane, with the Sun to the left.

The next three images are just one year's worth, showing the two loops of the six-month period halo orbit. The Blue dot is the Earth, the green torus is the Moon's orbit, and the red line is the orbit of JWST. The coordinates are in the rotating frame of the Earth-Moon barycenter around the Sun.

above: Top-down view, eleven years.

above: Top-down view, one year. (Sun to the left)

above: View from the Sun, one year.

above: View from the side, one year. (Sun to the left)

• What an amazing and incredibly detailed answer. Great read! Nov 3, 2017 at 19:14
• @BlackSheep NASA has done an excellent job of documenting the plan for the JWST's trajectory; there's a lot of information on various sites and YouTube as well.
– uhoh
Nov 3, 2017 at 19:30
• "JWST won't get close enough to the Sun-Earth line to even consider the issue." - it will not just get close, it is planned to avoid even partial moon or earth eclipse for 10.5 years in any possible JWST orbit due to power and thermal req: ntrs.nasa.gov/search.jsp?R=20160001318 "LAUNCH WINDOW TRADE ANALYSIS FOR THE JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE" 2016 - "trajectory design include meeting the mission lifetime goal and the avoidance of Earth and Moon eclipses during the entire trajectory. .. JWST does not include ΔV budget for shadow avoidance ... Constraint Driver(s) - Power and Thermal"
– osgx
Jan 22, 2018 at 4:01
• Wouldn't it be better to have 2 spacecraft: one in the Earth's shadow staying cool, another one in wider orbit harvesting power and powering JWST via LASER beam or something? Jan 2, 2022 at 12:50
• @JacekKrysztofik you can consider asking that as a new question!
– uhoh
Jan 2, 2022 at 12:58