James Webb telescope to complete major deployment
The main mirror of the James Webb Telescope is shown in a laboratory under construction. Photo courtesy of NASA
ORLANDO, Fla., Jan.8 (UPI) – NASA and mission controllers plan to complete the major and complex deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope on Saturday, as its giant golden mirror fully deploys about 700,000 miles from Earth.
Saturday’s rollout is scheduled to begin no earlier than 9 a.m. EST. Teams of engineers will send commands to Webb to release the locks first.
The process of unfolding the mirror only takes about 5 minutes, but locking it into place takes about 2 hours, according to NASA.
The $ 10 billion observatory is on day 14 of its million-mile journey after launching from South America on December 25, roughly halfway through its deployment schedule.
Saturday’s final stages will wrap up the most important preparations for using the telescope – the deployment of shields, mirrors, heaters and sensors.
“To eliminate most of the risks of deployments like this, the relief is enormous,” Klaus Pontoppidan, Project Webb scientist, told UPI in an interview. “We’re looking forward to the time when we can turn on the instruments and start seeing light on the detectors, even though it’s a completely blurry light at first.”
The mirror that will complete unfolding on Saturday is 21 feet, 4 inches in diameter and is made of beryllium coated with reflective gold. This is the shape and size that scientists believe were needed to measure infrared light from early galaxies.
But this huge instrument could never fit on rockets available in the world, so it had to be folded up for final assembly in space. Two mirror wings were folded back, the first of which unfurled on Friday, NASA said.
But the telescope is not yet ready for science, Pontoppidan said.
“The work we have left to do is to precisely align each of the 18 hexagonal segments of the mirror,” he said. “Nothing like this has ever been done in space before. We are confident, but there are still some critical steps left to ensure that you can get crisp images and data. ”
If something goes wrong, mission control teams can now take their time to troubleshoot issues, said Scott Friedman, Webb commissioning scientist.
This was not the case in the early stages of the deployment, as the spacecraft had to expand solar panels for power and its giant sunscreen to start cooling the ultra-sensitive instruments.
Most of the deployment went as planned, with the exception of a late day during which crews took a necessary break and fine-tuned the spacecraft’s systems to suit conditions in space, Friedman said.
But it will be about five more months before the observatory is fully commissioned and proven to be reliable for advanced astronomy, he said.
“Once the mirror segments are aligned, we’ll check the instruments for about three months, taking images to help with this process,” Friedman said. “And then finally, it will be another two months before we have shown that all aspects of the instruments are ready to support astronomical observations.”
It’s not yet clear exactly when audiences will see Webb’s first images, or even what those images will show, he said.
“It’s definitely a secret, because the images need to be authenticated, and everyone is hoping for a big surprise. We expect to be surprised,” he said.
Friedman, who works for the nonprofit Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, said he hoped Webb would inspire renewed interest in astronomy just like Hubble did when it launched in 1990 and returned its first quality images.
But Webb’s more sensitive instruments will penetrate the gas and dust of space objects that have sometimes limited Hubble’s vision.
These targets will include galaxies, supermassive black holes, nebulae, pulsars, and exoplanets. Scientists predict that Webb will help them identify the makeup of the atmospheres around planets in distant solar systems.
“We’re going to see things that we’ve never seen, even for objects that we know are there, not to mention things that we haven’t discovered yet,” Friedman said.
The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavor during a flyby of the orbiting lab that took place after it undocked from the space-oriented port of the Harmony Module on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA