NASA’s next great space observatory is finally in the air, but it will be a while before its long-awaited science mission begins.
The $ 10 billion James Webb Space Telescope launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana yesterday (December 25), kicking off a long-delayed, potentially transformative mission to study the early universe, nearby exoplanets, and more. However, members of the telescope team (and the rest of us) will have to be patient, as Webb has a lot of work to do before it goes live.
The telescope is aimed at Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2 (L2), a gravitationally stable point 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from our planet in the direction of Mars. It will take Webb 29 days to get there, and there will be plenty of nail-biting action for the telescope along the way.
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“The Webb Observatory has 50 major deployments … and 178 release mechanisms to implement those 50 parts,” said Webb mission systems engineer Mike Menzel, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, at a Deployment explainer video called “29 Days at the Edge” released by the agency in October.
“Each of them has to work,” Menzel said. “Deploying Webb is without a doubt the most challenging spacecraft activity we have ever undertaken.”
Webb has already achieved some important milestones. About half an hour after takeoff, for example, it deployed its solar panels and began to absorb energy from the sun. And last night, the large telescope performed a crucial 65-minute engine burnout that put it on course toward L2.
The following is a brief summary of the big steps to come. (For more details, see NASA’s Webb deployment site.) The times indicated are approximate; Members of the Webb team have emphasized that the implementation schedule is flexible, so don’t panic if the times and dates change a bit, or if some things happen out of order.
One day after launch, Webb will rotate its high-gain antenna toward Earth to further facilitate communications with its manipulators. A day after that, the spacecraft will perform another engine start to refine its trajectory toward L2. And three days after launch, the pallet that holds Webb’s massive sunshade, a five-layer structure designed to keep the infrared telescope and its instruments cool, will be lowered.
Each of the five blades of the shield is roughly the size of a tennis court when fully extended, too wide to fit inside the payload fairing of any currently operating rocket. So the sunshade was released in a compact configuration and needs to be deployed.
This is an incredibly complex process. The sunshade structure has 140 release mechanisms, 70 hinge assemblies, 400 pulleys, 90 cables and eight deployment motors, all of which must function properly for all five layers to unfold as planned, NASA officials said at the video.
The protective cover will come off the sunshade five days after launch and its booms will be extended a day later. Sunshade deployment should be completed eight days after takeoff, at which point team members will begin to focus on optics.
About 10 days after launch, Webb will extend its 2.4-foot-wide (0.74-meter) secondary mirror, which is so named because it is the second surface that deep-space photons will hit on their way to the oscilloscope instruments. .
Then it will be time for Webb’s 21.3-foot-wide (6.5 m) primary mirror to shine. That mirror, which is made up of 18 hexagonal segments, was launched folded, as did the parasol. Twelve to 13 days after launch, the mirror’s two side “wings” will spread out and lock in place, giving the surface its full size.
At that point, Webb will be in its final configuration. The massive observatory will reach its destination just over two weeks later, performing another engine start 29 days after launch to enter orbit around L2, where it will begin a different set of acceleration procedures.
Two to three months after launch, for example, the team will align the primary mirror segments to act as a single light-gathering surface. It will be a laborious and time-consuming job as the mirror has to be perfect to 150 nanometer precision. (In perspective: a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.)
“One of our scientists calculated that we move those mirrors literally slower than grass grows, as we align them incredibly precisely,” Webb’s lead project scientist Jonathan Gardner of the Center for Space Flight told Space. Goddard of NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland. com earlier this month.
As this happens, the team will also test and calibrate Webb’s four science instruments. That too will be a laborious process; the goal is to start regular science operations six months after launch.
“We are looking at the end of June,” Gardner said.
Webb’s observing time will be divided into a variety of projects selected through peer review, as is done with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Webb’s first year of projects has already been selected, Gardner said, so the new observatory will go live when it’s ready to go.
“It’s going to be a wild ride,” Gardner said.
Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or on Facebook.
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