NASA’s new Webb Space Telescope checks all the boxes as it unfolds –


Five days after launch, NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope ticks box after box as it deploys en route to its destination a million kilometers from Earth. A lot more steps are needed, but so far everything is fine.

The 6.5-meter-diameter space observatory is too large to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that launched it into space on Christmas Day. It goes from its narrow pre-launch setup to its sleek final shape.

The James Webb Space Telescope in its collapsed configuration at the Arianespace processing facility in Kourou, French Guiana, prior to launch. Credit: NASA
Illustration of the fully deployed James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Each step is critical, but some are more critical than others, starting with the deployment of the solar panel that provides the electric power. Luckily, a camera on Ariane 5’s upper stage captured this moment less than a minute after the two separated.

JWST is a joint program between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Among ESA’s contributions was the launch, provided free of charge to NASA, of the European rocket Ariane 5. The Arianespace rocket placed the telescope on a trajectory towards the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2 (SEL-2) at one million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.

The telescope has its own small motors to make mid-point corrections to fine-tune the trajectory, then keep the telescope orbiting that SEL-2 point in space. So how long JWST can do its job depends in part on how much fuel is left after the mid-course corrections. Ariane 5 was so precise in getting JWST up and running that, in terms of fuel, JWST will be able to run for over 10 years.

The nominal life of JWST is five years and the estimated life cycle cost of $ 9.7 billion is based on five years of operation. Scientists have long hoped that it could actually run twice as long, although the costs of extended operations are not part of NASA’s budget planning at this point. Many, perhaps most, of NASA’s science missions last well beyond their intended lifespan, and NASA periodically performs senior reviews to assess whether the science gathered is worth the continuing expense. Usually the answer is yes, although that can mean less money to start new projects.

For JWST, this question will be asked years from now. Right now, everyone is focused on getting it set up and running in the first place.

Over the past five days, several crucial steps have gone as planned, including not only deploying the solar panel, but two mid-course fixes, lowering the two sun visor paddles and lifting the tower. on which the main mirror of the telescope is located.

JWST will study the universe in infrared (heat) wavelengths, so its instruments must be very, very cold. One, the medium infrared instrument (MIRI), should be kept at 7 degrees Kelvin (-447 ° F / -266 ° C). The others, NIRSpec, NIRCam, and FGS / NIRSS, operate at 40 ° K (-387 ° F / -233 ° C).

The sun visor protects the instruments from heat and sunlight. Deployment is underway.

This next week will see the sunshade tension and other deployment stages. The exact timing is flexible, but NASA said today It will provide live coverage on its website and the NASA application of the Early Sun Visor Tension (NET) on January 2, the deployment of the NET secondary mirror support structure on January 4, and the final deployments. NET on January 7.


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