The James Webb Space Telescope has completed a tricky two-week-long deployment phase, unfolding its huge, gold-plated, flower-shaped mirror panel as it readies to study every phase of cosmic history.
Engineering teams at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, cheered on Saturday as NASA announced on Twitter that the final portion of the 6.5-metre (21-foot) mirror was deployed.
Celebrations around the #NASAWebb Mission Operations Center at STScI! We have a telescope in space! Thank you to everyone for your support for this mission. #UnfoldTheUniverse pic.twitter.com/TGfnnJ3rAi
— Space Telescope Science Institute (@SpaceTelescope) January 8, 2022
“I’m emotional about it – what an amazing milestone,” Thomas Zurbuchen, a senior NASA engineer, said during the live video feed as stargazers worldwide celebrated.
“We see that beautiful pattern out there in the sky now.”
More powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, the $10bn Webb will scan the cosmos for light streaming from the first stars and galaxies formed 13.7 billion years ago. To accomplish this, NASA had to outfit Webb with the biggest and most sensitive mirror ever launched – its “golden eye”, as scientists call it.
The telescope is so big that it had to be folded origami-style to fit in the rocket that blasted off from French Guiana two weeks ago.
The riskiest operation occurred earlier in the week when the tennis court-size sun shield unfurled.
The shield will be permanently positioned between the telescope and the Sun, Earth and Moon, with the Sun-facing side built to withstand 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit).
Far reaches of the universe
Flight controllers in Baltimore began opening the “golden eye” on Friday, unfolding the left side like a drop-leaf table.
This mirror is made of beryllium, a lightweight yet sturdy and cold-resistant metal. Each of its 18 segments is coated with an ultrathin layer of gold, highly reflective of infrared light.
The hexagonal, coffee table-size segments must be adjusted in the days and weeks ahead so they can focus as one on stars, galaxies and alien worlds that might hold atmospheric signs of life.
“It’s like we have 18 mirrors that are right now little prima donnas all doing their own thing, singing their own tune in whatever key they’re in, and we have to make them work like a chorus and that is a methodical, laborious process,” operations project scientist Jane Rigby told reporters.
#NASAWebb is fully deployed! 🎉
With the successful deployment & latching of our last mirror wing, that’s:
50 major deployments, complete.
178 pins, released.
20+ years of work, realized.
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) January 8, 2022
Webb should reach its destination one million miles (1.6 million kilometres) away in another two weeks; it is already more than 667,000 miles (one million kilometres) from Earth since its Christmas Day launch.
The telescope still has about another five-and-a-half months of setup to go, according to NASA, and the next steps include aligning the…