Moving at a quarter mile per second through space, the James Webb Space Telescope received its golden wings on Saturday in the final stage of its deployment since its launch.
The most powerful telescope ever built was launched from French Guiana on Christmas morning, but the massive observatory had to be folded to fit an Ariane 5 rocket.
Webb’s basic 21-foot-wide mirror is folded in two places like two ears on either side of the human head. One of those ears with three hexagonal mirrors was opened on Friday, and the final move occurred on Saturday morning when teams posted their last three mirrors to the starboard side. Now the telescope is in its final form to look back at the universe.
He was a huge milestone for the mission and the international team responsible for the launch and every step of the deployment. Webb is a global effort between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency.
NASA Chief Scientist Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen appeared on Saturday’s NASA live broadcast of the final deployment with a growing beard. Usually clean-shaven, Zurbuchen told his wife after Webb was fired, “I won’t shave until Webb is fully deployed.”
Since its launch, the telescope has been slowly unfolding in space piece by piece. A big move occurred earlier this week when Webb’s five-layer sunblock was opened. Each layer had to be tightened before the next.
Next, the secondary mirror connected by three long arms in front of the spacecraft was ejected. Lee Feinberg, Webb’s Optical Telescope Element Manager at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, called it “the world’s most advanced tripod.”
Saturday’s deployment of the primary mirror means the largest mirror in space has both wings open, and the telescope has completed every critical step of opening it from its launch cocoon. One hundred and seventy-eight firing mechanisms are required to launch Webb for its full deployment. On Saturday, the final latches were released.
The publishing team at the Space Telescope Science Institute Control Center in Baltimore listened to some crowding in the 1970s while checking all the steps before opening the final mirrors. At one point, Anita Ward’s “Ring my Bell” could be heard from a NASA livestream.
Telemetry from the spacecraft has been translated into an animation showing the wing in place as it did in space.
With the last three mirrors aligned with the large golden telescope, a voice at the control center confirmed, “We have reached the end of the spread.” Everyone in the control center applauded and cheered.
Webb will continue to travel through space over the next two weeks to reach its final orbit a million miles from Earth, known as Lagrangian Point II, or L2. The spacecraft still has about 230,000 miles to go on its journey. It is expected to arrive before the end of January.
The next five months will be spent cooling the telescope, aligning the 18 individual mirrors that make up the primary mirror and calibrating the scientific instruments.
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has a website dedicated to tracking Webb’s progress. Provides distance, speed and temperature updates.
By design, JWST has a “cool side” and a “hot side”. The hot side is the lower portion of the spacecraft’s tennis court-sized sun visor, facing the sun and protecting Webb’s instruments that need to operate in frigid temperatures.
The cool side includes a giant hexagonal web mirror and will be minus 467 degrees Fahrenheit at times. This presented an engineering challenge to the teams building Webb because the telescope must operate in subzero temperatures in space, but it was built at room temperature on Earth. To make sure everything would work in space, engineers put all the mirrors and instruments through a cryogenic vacuum test at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama.
The $10 billion JWST will build on the incredible legacy of the Hubble Space Telescope but is much more powerful. Webb will see in infrared light by looking at the first galaxies, discovering new worlds and helping solve unanswered questions about how we got here.
“Can you imagine, even five years from now, how classrooms around the world will be affected by the telescope that is being built now?” Zurbuchen said.
JWST could run longer than its expected 10-year lifespan and change what we know about the universe. Next generation scientists will benefit from the mission.