Astronomers breathe a sigh of relief after Webb Telescope unfolds its mirror in space

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NASA’s Bill Ochs and John Durning celebrate at the Space Telescope Science Institute following the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope. (NASA Photo/Bill Ingalls)

Two weeks after the Christmas launch, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope It ended up unwinding itself today, delighting astronomers in the process.

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The deployment of JWST’s 18-segment, 21.3-foot-wide primary mirror marked the end of the riskiest part of the $10 billion telescope’s mission.

It is still more than 300,000 miles away from its destination, a gravitational equilibrium point known as L2 that is one million miles from Earth. It still has to fix the orientation of the mirror’s gold and beryllium segments, and cool its instruments to temperatures a few degrees above absolute zero, But mission controllers at the Space Telescope Science Institute were able to pinpoint about 300 possible points of failure without a hitch.


“We have a fully deployed JWST observatory,” Northrop Grumman’s Paul Reynolds, who led the mission’s deployment operations team, declared during a Widely viewed webcast,

JWST is designed to be 100 times more sensitive than the 32-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, which is nearing the end of its long life. Once JWST begins science operations in early May, it should make new revelations about mysteries ranging from the habitability of alien planets to the nature of black holes and quasars to the origins of the universe.

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Today’s mirror deployment, after years of developmental delays and billions of dollars in cost overruns, was hailed as a sign success by astronomers in the field as well as top NASA officials.

“NASA is a place where the impossible becomes possible,” said agency administrator Bill Nelson.

Mark McCogreen, senior adviser for science and exploration at the European Space Agency, looked back on the wartime facilitators of Winston Churchill to describe this moment. “It is not the end now, to quote Mr. Churchill,” McCogreen tweeted, “It’s not even the beginning of the end. But it’s probably the end of the beginning. Five months of cooling, aligning and commissioning are left before the science begins, hard work for the teams involved. But today is a big step forward.”

It took two weeks to reveal the primary mirror – and other components of the JWST, including a sunshield and rigging for the secondary mirror – as the binoculars to fit into the fully positioned configuration inside the nose cone of the European Ariane 5 rocket was very big. which was launched.

The five-layer sunshield of ultra-thin-coated plastic had to be hoisted into space to protect the telescope from solar radiation, which was considered the riskiest part of the deployment. Then the left and right sides of the telescope had to be pulled and latched like the sides of a drop-leaf table. The left side was set up on Friday, and the right was taken care of today.

“This has been the most challenging deployment program NASA has ever undertaken,” NASA mission systems engineer Mike Menzel said during a post-deployment briefing at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

The mission team created contingency plans for possible disturbances, including the process of moving the spacecraft in space if necessary. But none of those plans were to be used.

“It wasn’t as easy as it looks, but the spontaneity you saw … it’s just a tribute to people,” Bill Ochs, the mission’s project manager, said. “From what we realized, we have now gone through the exact right amount of testing, the exact right amount of engineering audits, the exact right amount of changes to the design.”

Prior to launch, mission managers said JWST would face 344 possible single points of failure. And because the telescope was destined to operate far beyond Earth orbit, there would be no opportunity to send a repair team to fix any defects – as was the case with Hubble.

Although the riskiest part of the mission is over, some risks remain. The spacecraft would have to fire its thrusters on Jan. 23 to settle into its orbit around the L2 gravitational equilibrium point, and then settle regularly for years to come.

“Of the original 344, 49 are single-point failures that are not retired, and will not be retired for the duration of the mission,” Menzel said. “These 49 are specific to all missions — things like propulsion tanks.”

The good news is that so far things are going surprisingly smoothly. So easily, in fact, that the telescope has enough surplus propellant to last much longer than its originally expected five to 10 years of operation.

“Roughly speaking, that’s about 20 years of propellant,” Menzel said.

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