The web telescope spends ’29 days on the edge ‘when it comes to life in space

Announced as NASA’s leading space observatory for the next decade, the telescope was launched on Christmas Day – and it still has a way to go before it orbits and observes the universe.
The agency refers to this process as “29 days on the edge”, while the observatory unfolds its massive sunshade and reaches a special point in orbit that is a million miles away from Earth.

To achieve all these things, NASA built its most complex telescope to date – and everything must work flawlessly before it can get started.

Over the course of the 29 days, Webb will set up shop and unfold his giant gold mirror and protective sunshade in tennis court size. This process involves thousands of parts that need to work harmoniously, in the right order. Fortunately, every step can be controlled from the ground if there are problems.

So far, Webb has already gotten off to a good start. The spacecraft has already made two of three critical course correction burns to ensure it is on the right orbit.

This image shows NASA's last look at the telescope after launch, captured by the cameras aboard the rocket's top step when the telescope was separated from it.  The earth can be seen at the top right.
It also used less fuel than planned due to the precision of the telescope’s launch aboard the Ariane 5 rocket, so “the observatory should have enough fuel to allow support for scientific operations in orbit for significantly more than a 10-year scientific life, “according to NASA.
The mission was designed to last for five years. But as we have seen with other telescopes that successfully survived their expected timeline, such as Spitzer and Hubble, scientists are uncovering a bet that the same may be true for Webb.

On December 26, Webb released his antenna collection, including a high-rate satellite dish that will serve as the telescope’s way of sending 28.6 gigabytes of scientific data back twice a day.

Astronomers, including those with The Virtual Telescope Project, have even been able to track Webb’s journey since launch, and they have shared images and video of the observatory against a background of stars.

Protection from the sun

Now Webb is starting to take a familiar form – it will be when everything is fully implemented. The spacecraft has unfolded and locked pallet structures that will eventually lead to the roll-out of the sunshade, a process that is expected to continue until Sunday. The team also expanded the Deployable Tower Assembly, which creates spacing between two halves of the spacecraft.

The observatory consists of three main elements.

One is the Integrated Science Instrument Module, which houses Webb’s suite of four instruments. These instruments will mainly be used for taking pictures or spectroscopy – refracting light into different wavelengths to determine physical and chemical components.

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The optical telescopic element, the main eye of the observatory, includes the mirrors and the back plate, or the spine that supports the mirrors.

Then there is the Spacecraft Element, which includes the spacecraft bus and the Sun Shield. The bus includes the six main subsystems needed to operate the spacecraft, including propulsion, electric current, communications, data and thermal controls.

The massive five-layer sun shield will protect Webb’s giant mirrors and instruments from the sun’s heat, because they must be kept at a very cold minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 188 degrees Celsius) in order to observe the universe as designed.

This illustration shows the Webb telescope with its mirror and sun shield fully deployed in space.

The successful deployment of the Sun Shield is crucial to Web’s ability to function – and it’s also one of the most challenging spacecraft installations NASA has ever attempted, according to the agency.

“There are 50 major rollouts that are transforming Webb from its hidden, launch configuration to an operational observatory,” said Michael McElwain, the Webb Observatory’s project researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, in a statement.

“Although these steps have been tested on the ground and operationally rehearsed in the Mission Operations Center, these critical activities must be performed for a successful mission. Best wishes to our team, and stay cool, Webb!”

The next steps

Webb will then release his sun visor covers, extend the booms and stretch the five layers of sun visor in place if all goes according to plan.

Then there is the mirror – which is considered to be Webb’s trademark.

The telescope is equipped with a mirror that can extend 21 feet and 4 inches (6.5 meters) – a massive length that allows the mirror to collect more light from the objects it observes when the telescope is in space. The mirror includes 18 hexagonal gold-plated segments, each 4.3 feet (1.32 meters) in diameter.

It is the largest mirror NASA has ever built, but its size created a unique problem. The mirror was so large that it could not fit into a rocket. So engineers designed the telescope as a series of moving parts that can fold origami-style and fit into a 16-foot (5-meter) space for launch.

Ball Aerospace optical technician Scott Murray inspects the first gold primary mirror segments during assembly.

This is the next series of crucial steps for Webb – making sure all of these mirrors unfold and lock together to create one giant mirror.

All of these steps are expected to be completed by the end of next week.

Finally, Webb will make another orbital adjustment to insert himself into an orbit that extends beyond the moon.

As it rounds the 29 days, the telescope will undergo a period of commissioning in space lasting six months, involving cooling of the instruments, adjustment and calibration. All the instruments go through a payment process to see how they work.

Webb will start collecting data and its first images later in 2022, and they are expected to be released in June or July, which will forever change the way we see and understand the universe.


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