Remarkably, NASA completed the deployment of the Webb Space Telescope

A model of the James Webb Space Telescope.

A model of the James Webb Space Telescope.

For much of the world, Saturday was just another weekend day filled with all the troubles and perils of this planet. The Omicron-fueled pandemic has raged around the world. New York has come out of its first snowstorm of the season. Unrest continued in Kazakhstan and elsewhere

But in space. In the space. On Saturday in space there was a great triumph.

After a quarter of a century of efforts by tens of thousands of people, more than $ 10 billion in taxpayer funding, and some 350 deployment mechanisms that were to unfold in this way, the James Webb Space Telescope has fully deployed its wings. The huge spaceship has completed its final deployments and, by God, the process has gone smoothly.

Thanks to NASA and space agencies in Europe and Canada, the world has a brilliant new space telescope that will allow humanity to see far deeper into the depths of galactic time than ever before, and quite possibly to identify the first truly Earth-like worlds. around other stars.

I dare say 99% of the world won’t know or realize or care to understand the amount of work, engineering, and paperwork that went into building, launching and deploying the James Webb Space Telescope. But those of us who know, we know. And we are in admiration.

In an understatement after the full deployment, NASA Chief Scientist Thomas Zurbuchen said: “This is an incredible milestone.”

Serious planning for a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope began in the 1990s, and scientists were eager to see further into the early universe. To do this, they would need a dark and cold environment away from Earth. This is because to collect light from the faintest and most distant objects in the universe, not only a very large mirror is needed, but also no background interference.

To do this, the scientists planned to build a telescope that would make observations in the infrared part of the spectrum, where the wavelengths are just a little longer than red light. This part of the spectrum is good for both detecting heat emissions, and these wavelengths are long enough that they are less likely to be deflected by interstellar dust.

Such a telescope would have to be very cold, however, so scientists came to design a large heat shield the size of a tennis court to block light and heat from the Sun. But because no rocket has a very large fairing, that heat shield and telescope would necessarily have to be folded like origami to fit into the protective cocoon on top of a rocket. Nothing like it had never been tried before. It took almost two decades to build that heat shield, test it, and make sure it could be deployed in space.

So while the launch of the Webb Telescope on Christmas Day two weeks ago was momentous, it was only the beginning of the end of Webb’s journey from concept to science operations. As part of the deployment process, there were 344 actions where a single point failure could scuttle the telescope. This is a remarkable number of cases without redundant capacity, which is why many scientists and engineers I have spoken with in recent years have felt that Webb has a good chance of failing once in space. .

But now this super complex heat shield is working. The temperature on the side of the telescope facing the sun is 55 degrees Celsius, a very, very, very hot day in the Sahara Desert. And already, the scientific instruments on the back of the sun visor have cooled down to -199 degrees Celsius, a temperature at which liquid nitrogen is a liquid. They will cool even further.

The work remains, of course. Webb still has to cross approximately 370,000 km to reach an orbit around a stable Lagrange point, L2. Scientists and engineers check and align the 18 segments of the primary mirror a lot. Scientific instruments need to be calibrated. But all of this work is a bit more routine when it comes to science spaceships. Of course, there are risks, but they are mostly known risks.

So we can be reasonably confident now that Webb will in fact start making scientific observations this summer. We should, really, be impressed.


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