It worked. It actually worked! The world has been watching since Christmas Day to see it the 300 single-point failure items, 50 parts and 178 release mechanisms of the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope would work—and whether its incredibly complicated unfolding would go as planned.
After some incredible work from its engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland everything went smoothly and Webb is now on its way to its parking orbit as a fully assembled space telescope.
Webb’s second side panel of its mirror was extended and latched into position at 1:17 p.m. EST on January 8, 2022, with the team at Mission Operations Center ground control at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore thus declaring the Webb telescope deployed!
What’s more, it seems that the launch itself went so spectacularly well that engineers were able to save more fuel than planned. The upshot is that Webb’s planned 10-year mission could be as much as doubled.
Since Webb will be able to observe continuously—as opposed to the in-orbit Hubble Space Telescope—that’s an incredible and unexpected boost for our long-term knowledge of the cosmos.
Here’s everything you need to know about what’s going on with Webb—the most ambitious and complex space science telescope ever constructed—and what happens next:
What just happened?
Webb’s thrilling and flawless deployment has seen its five-layer sunshield lowered, unfurled and tensioned. The sunshield has five super-thin layers, dozens of hinges, motors, gears, springs and a whopping 1,312 feet of cables. The 107 myriad release mechanisms need to fire on cue to erase the five layers.
Deployment has also involved the primary golden segmented mirror being raised, its secondary mirror being extended and the primary mirror wings open. The six-ton Webb has a primary mirror with a diameter of 21 feet/6.5 meters. It’s made from beryllium and made up of 18 hexagonal segments, each one covered in a super-thin layer of gold that’s perfect for reflecting infrared light.
“Today’s been a remarkable day … we have 5 and a half months of commissioning left but these last two weeks have truly been amazing,” said Bill Ochs, Webb Project Manager, NASA Goddard. “Thousands of people have worked on JWST and I cannot thank all of them enough.”MORE FROM FORBESWebb: One Of Mankind’s Greatest Masterpieces Is About To Unfold In Space. Get Ready For 29 Nail-Biting DaysBy Jamie Carter
Where is Webb going and when will it get there?
It will get there on January 23, 2022.
How does it now have fuel for 20 years?
It appears that the perfect launch of the Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas Day may be crucial in giving Webb a longer life than expected. Once it’s at L2 it will be in a near-perfect alignment with the Sun, the Earth and the Moon. The only fuel it will need will be for the occasional correction to keep it in that orbit. That fuel is limited because everything is limited when you launch such a heavy payload into space.
Webb was initially said to have a 10-year lifespan. That may now have doubled. It appears that Webb may have “quite a bit of fuel margin … roughly speaking, it’s around 20 years of propellant,” said Mike Menzel, NASA Webb Mission Systems Engineer during a press briefing. It’s seemingly a result of “the efficiency or the accuracy with which Ariane put us on orbit and our accuracy and effectiveness in implementing our mid-course corrections.”
What happens now?
“On January 23 we’ll arrive at our LG insertion location but while we get there we’ll begin phasing the mirror—taking its 18 mirror segments and aligning them so they behave as one monolith,” said John Durning, Webb Deputy Project Manager at NASA Goddard. “We’ll start turning on the instruments in the next week or so, so we can cool them down and calibrate them and get them ready for “first light.”
The mirror deployment will begin on Tuesday, January 11 and is expected to last for two weeks, though the mirror won’t be fully aligned until April 24, 2022. It’s going to be a painstaking task. “Starting on Tuesday we’ll deploy the mirrors it’s then a 10-12 day process to get all of the mirrors forward by roughly half an inch so we can do the detailed optical alignment,” said Lee Feinberg, Webb Optical Telescope Element Manager, NASA Goddard. “There’s then a three month process to align the mirrors starting with the first light on all 18 segments. Roughly four months into to the mission the whole telescope will be aligned.”
In total it will take five-and-a-half months to switch on and test Webb’s instruments. Webb will then begin its routine science observations and deliver its first images. We could get to see the first test images at the end of March or early April.
Another crucial part will be for Webb needs to cool down. Big time. Its four instruments all need to be cooled-down to -370° F and then calibrated and aligned.
What will Webb do?
Webb will study the Solar System, directly image exoplanets, photograph the first galaxies, and explore the mysteries of the origins of the Universe. Its ability to capture infrared light means it will be able to “see” the cosmos as it was when just a few hundred million years old, capturing images of the first-ever stars and galaxies.
Webb is a partnership between NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.