NASA may well be successful in deploying the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope takes off from French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25.
Enlarge / The James Webb Space Telescope takes off from French Guiana aboard an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25.

ESA – S. Corvaja

Nine days after the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA said it had made good progress in deploying the $ 10 billion instrument and had now begun the critical process of “straining” the windshield. Sun.

On Monday, six motors aboard the telescope began the process of fully extending the first of five layers of the sun visor. These tennis court-sized layers, each made of a polyimide film called Kapton, will shade the instrument and allow it to cool to 50 Kelvin, or -223 degrees Celsius and just 50 degrees above the ground. absolute zero. This cold environment is essential for Webb to observe infrared light and detect heat from very distant objects.

NASA Webb Project Leader Bill Ochs said the first of those five layers is expected to be fully deployed by the end of Monday. The goal is to extend the other four layers on Tuesday and Wednesday. After this time, the massive sun visor, the most complex aspect of a complex deployment process, will be complete.

“I don’t expect any drama,” Ochs said over the next few days on a teleconference with reporters Monday.

Following this streak, NASA will be there most of the time. In total, from launch to commissioning, the Webb instrument must undergo 344 actions where a single point failure could scuttle the telescope. After the sunshield was deployed, Ochs said the Webb instrument would overcome “70-75%” of these one-time failures.

The other major activities to be completed are the deployment of the secondary mirror support structure and the deployment of the second of Webb’s primary mirror wings. These activities could both be completed by this weekend and would effectively complete the deployment phase.

While science operations won’t begin until mid-2022, then NASA engineers and thousands of scientists will begin to breathe a sigh of relief. It took 20 laborious years to send Webb into space, and after less than 20 days the telescope will either be fully deployed or it won’t.

As part of the deployment process, teams of engineers and scientists from NASA and the telescope’s main contractor, Northrop Grumman, have worked 12 hours since the Christmas Day launch on an Ariane 5 rocket. -end, the teams worked on two relatively minor issues, said Amy Lo, an alignment engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope at Northrop.

The James Webb Space Telescope's lens hood has five layers.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s lens hood has five layers.

Nasa

The first issue was with the performance of the telescope’s 6-meter-wide solar panel. Although the observatory was never “without power,” Lo said the original configuration of the five panels turned out not to be optimal. To achieve full power, she said, the bay has been rebalanced and is now functioning as intended. This shouldn’t be a problem in the future.

The other potential issue was with the six motors involved in the tensioning process. They “were running a little hot,” Lo said, but after repositioning the telescope to keep them cooler, they are at 327 Kelvin, well below the operating limit of 340 Kelvin. Lo said she expects the engines to stay below limit for the next three days.

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