Some two weeks after its Christmas Day launch, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope finished unfolding itself into its final configuration.
The massive $10 billion telescope was launched Dec. 25, 2021, and has since been going through a process of unfolding from its launch position to its operation configuration. All of this occurred during its month-long trek to its final location — the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point, which is a gravitationally stable location about a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth.
On Jan. 4, 2022, the space telescope’s 70-foot (21-meter) sunshield was fully deployed, reaching a significant milestone in preparation for science operations and discovery.
The purpose of the five layer sunshield is to protect the Webb telescope from heat and light emitted from our Sun, Moon and Earth.
The incredibly-thin SPF 1 million shield is composed of five plastic sheets that are each about as thin as a human hair coated with a reflective material that reduces exposure from the sun, reducing 200 kilowatts of solar emissions to less than a watt.
“Unfolding Webb’s sunshield in space is an incredible milestone, crucial to the success of the mission,” said Gregory L. Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA Headquarters. “Thousands of parts had to work with precision for this marvel of engineering to fully unfurl. The team has accomplished an audacious feat with the complexity of this deployment – one of the boldest undertakings yet for Webb.”
The protection afforded by the five layer sunshield is vital to keep Webb’s scientific instruments at temperatures of 40 Kelvin (about minutes 387 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 233 degrees Celsius) to ensure the faint infrared light in the telescope’s view can be observed properly.
Finally, on Jan. 8, 2022, engineers unfolded the second of two mirror wings for the space telescope’s 21-foot (6.5-meter) gold-coated primary mirror in Webb’s last major deployment needed for science exploration and investigation.
The first wing was deployed on Jan. 7.
The James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror had been folded in order to fit into the nose of the 5-meter-wide Ariane 5 rocket in preparation for launch. Composed of 18 hexagonal shapes, this is the largest mirror ever launched into space.
After full deployment at 1:17 p.m. EST (18:17 UTC) Jan. 8, NASA declared all significant deployments had been completed.
“I am so proud of the team – spanning continents and decades – that delivered this first-of-its kind achievement,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate in NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Webb’s successful deployment exemplifies the best of what NASA has to offer: the willingness to attempt bold and challenging things in the name of discoveries still unknown.”
Webb is the largest telescope ever launched to space and is expected to let us look back over 13.5 billion years to galaxies and far-off worlds with a much higher resolution than ever before.
The next major milestone will be for the telescope to perform an engine burn to place itself in the L2 Lagrange point. Over the next six months, the Webb telescope will be commissioned and calibrated before beginning science operations.
Video courtesy of NASA
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