NASA’s new space telescope is close to completing the riskiest part of its mission – unfolding and tightening a massive sun visor – after controllers on the ground fix two issues, officials said.
The tennis court-sized sun visor on the James Webb Space Telescope is now fully open and being tensioned. The operation should be completed on Wednesday.
The $ 10 billion telescope – the largest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever launched – exploded in space on Christmas Day. Its sun visor and primary mirror had to be folded up to accommodate the European Ariane rocket that carried it into space.
The sunshield is essential in keeping Webb’s infrared sensing instruments at sub-zero temperatures as they scan the universe for the first stars and galaxies and examine the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.
The sunshade extension on Friday “was really a huge success for us,” said the project manager. Bill ochs. All 107 release pins opened correctly.
But there were some obstacles.
Maryland flight controllers had to reset Webb’s solar panel to use more electricity. The observatory – considered the successor to previous space telescopes, including aging Hubble – has never been in danger, with a constant flow of power, said Amy lo, chief engineer for the telescope’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.
They also joined the telescope to limit sunlight on six overheating engines. The engines have cooled down enough to begin securing the sun visor, a three-day process that can be halted if the problem recurs, officials said.
“Everything is fine and is fine now,” Lo said.
Ochs expects the sun visor tightening to go without drama.
“The best thing about operations is boring, and that’s what we expect over the next three days is to be boring,” he said on a teleconference Monday.
If true, the telescope’s gold-plated mirror – which measures over 21 feet in diameter – could deploy as early as this weekend.
Webb is expected to reach his destination 1 million kilometers from Earth by the end of January. As of Monday, the telescope was over halfway.
The infrared telescope is expected to begin observing the cosmos by the end of June, finally revealing the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe some 13.7 billion years ago. It’s barely 100 million years after the big bang.
Hubble, which primarily sees visible light, dates back 13.4 billion years. Astronomers intend to see even farther – both distance and over time – with the Webb, which detects infrared light and is 100 times more powerful.
In another piece of good news on Monday, officials said they expected Webb to last well beyond the 10 years originally planned based on its energy efficiency.