James Webb Space Telescope Successfully Deploys Giant Golden Mirror into Space | Astronomy


Just 14 days after launch, the world’s most complex space observatory has already overcome some of its biggest challenges. The James Webb Space Telescope successfully completed the deployment of its giant gold mirror on Saturday.

“I am so proud of the team – spanning continents and decades – that have achieved this one-of-a-kind achievement,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Directorate of Science Missions, said in a statement. “Webb’s successful deployment exemplifies the best that NASA has to offer: the willingness to try bold and challenging things in the name of as yet unknown discoveries. “

It’s the largest mirror NASA has ever built, but its size has created a unique problem. The mirror was so big it couldn’t fit into a rocket. Engineers designed the telescope as a series of moving parts that can bend origami-style and fit into a 5-meter (16-foot) space for launch.

The mirror can span 21 feet 4 inches (6.5 meters), a massive length that will allow it to collect more light from objects in space. The more light the mirror can collect, the more detail the telescope can observe.

A look back in time

In addition to studying the wealth of planets outside of our solar system, the observatory will look at some of the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang and explore the very structure of the universe. Webb will act like an infrared sleuth, detecting light that is invisible to us and revealing otherwise hidden regions of space, including distant corners of our universe.

And for the observatory to achieve these goals, the mirror’s 18 gold-coated hexagonal segments had to unfold and lock in perfect order.

The precarious process began on Wednesday when the spacecraft deployed the supporting structure of a secondary mirror. While much of the attention has been focused on Webb’s iconic gold mirror, the light it collects will actually reach a smaller 2.4 foot (0.74 meter) secondary mirror. This relatively small mirror is what directs infrared light to Webb’s science instruments.

Three spacers almost 7.6 meters long support this small mirror. These were successfully set up, locked down and locked down on January 5th.

“Webb’s secondary mirror had to deploy in microgravity and extremely cold temperatures, and it ultimately had to function error-free the first time around,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope elements manager for Webb at the Goddard Spaceflight Center in NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement Wednesday.

“It also had to deploy, position and lock into place with a tolerance of about a millimeter and a half, and then it has to remain extremely stable as the telescope points to different places in the sky – and that’s it. a secondary mirror support structure over 7 meters long. “

Webb’s golden mirror began to take shape when the first of the two primary wings was unfolded and locked on Friday. These wings are side panels that each contain three mirror segments. This was followed by the unfolding and locking of the second panel on the other side on Saturday.

Risky and laborious process

All Webb deployments since launch have been monitored from the ground by a dedicated team working 12-hour shifts to ensure Webb achieves every achievement along its journey.

Unfolding the mirrors didn’t take long – only about five minutes per side panel, thanks to a motorized process. But the meticulous click-in of the panels took two hours for each.

Now that Webb’s mirror and tennis court-sized sun visor are in place, the telescope is considered “fully extended”.

“The success of all Webb Space Telescope deployments is historic,” Gregory L. Robinson, director of the Webb program at NASA, said in a statement. “This is the first time that a NASA-led mission has attempted to complete a complex sequence to deploy an observatory into space – a remarkable achievement for our team, NASA and the world.”

It will spend the next two weeks traveling to reach its intended orbit, which is about 1.6 million kilometers from Earth.

During this time, the telescope will make small adjustments to the segments of the mirror and make a final trajectory adjustment to fit into an orbit that extends beyond the moon.

“While the journey is not over, I am joining Team Webb to breathe a little easier and imagine the future breakthroughs that should inspire the world,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “Every achievement already achieved and future achievement is a testament to the thousands of innovators who have dedicated their lifelong passion to this mission.”

A technically complex feat

Sensors, rather than images, helped Webb’s team monitor the spacecraft as it performed and completed each task.

Initially, NASA considered adding cameras to the spacecraft to aid this process, but they were deemed unnecessary for several reasons. The Large Telescope came to life in space by deploying and deploying multiple components, which repeatedly altered its configuration. Webb is also incredibly bright, so it would be difficult to reduce camera glare. And they would have also added risk to an already insanely complex design.

“Webb’s built-in sense of ‘touch’ (for example, switches and various mechanical, electrical, and temperature sensors) provide much more useful information than just surveillance cameras,” said Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager for the Webb Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement.

Once Webb reaches orbit, the telescope will go through a period of installation in space that will last about five months, which involves cooling, aligning and calibrating its instruments. All instruments will also go through a verification process to see how they perform.

Webb will start collecting data and his first images later in 2022, and those are expected to be released in June or July, forever changing the way we view and understand the universe.

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