James Webb Space Telescope's Home in Space

When you ask an astronomer about the James Webb Space Telescope's orbit, they'll tell you something that sounds like it came from a science-fiction novel. The Webb won't be orbiting the Earth –instead we will send it almost a million miles out into space to a place called "L2."

L2 is short-hand for the second Lagrange Point, a wonderful accident of gravity and orbital mechanics, and the perfect place to park the Webb telescope in space. There are five so-called "Lagrange Points" - areas where gravity from the sun and Earth balance the orbital motion of a satellite. Putting a spacecraft at any of these points allows it to stay in a fixed position relative to the Earth and sun with a minimal amount of energy needed for course correction.

The term L2 may sound futuristic and mysterious, but the name actually honors a Mathematician born in 1736. The Lagrange points were named after the Italian-born mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange, who made important contributions to classical and celestial mechanics. Lagrange studied the "three-body problem" (so-called because three bodies are orbiting each other) for the Earth, sun, and moon in 1764, and by 1772 he had found the solution; there are five stable points at which you could put an object and have it stay fixed in place relative to the other two.