Science

This is how the James Webb Space Telescope is aligning its mirrors in deep space

The James Webb Space Telescope continues to fine-tune its mirrors to finally peer into the deep and distant universe.

The telescope launched on December 25 with the 18 hexagonal segments of its primary and secondary mirrors folded and stored so the components would survive the rigors of liftoff. Now, the telescope is close to reaching its destination in deep space and is starting to line up those mirror segments.

“Prior to launch, all the mirrors were attached with the pins snug in the sockets, providing additional support,” said Marshall Perrin, deputy telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute that Webb manages, in a publication. NASA blog post on Thursday (January 19). 13).

“Each mirror should now unfold 12.5 millimeters [about half an inch] to remove the pins from the sockets. This will give the mirrors ‘room to move’ and allow them to be ready in their starting positions for alignment,” added Perrin.

Live Updates: NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission

Aligning the mirror segments is a multi-month process that will require several blurry and “ugly” test images to ensure everything goes according to plan, NASA engineers said during a news conference broadcast live on March 8. January. The mirrors should be aligned around April 24.

“I like to think of it as if we have 18 mirrors who are, right now, little prima donnas, all doing their thing, singing their own tune in whatever key they’re in,” Jane Rigby, Webb Operations Project Scientist, he said during the press conference. “We have to make them work like a choir, and that’s a methodical and painstaking process.”

Perrin added that the process will require “some patience,” especially since the mirrors can be manipulated with high precision. Further adjustments to the mirror segments are possible in increments as small as 10 nanometers, which is just one ten-thousandth of the width of a human hair. The first few adjustments, he added, won’t be that fine, just about a centimeter.

Webb’s mirror control system only moves one actuator at a time to reduce the complexity of the system electronics and also to ensure safety (since a single maneuver is easier to monitor than several). These actuators are small motors that allow the equipment to move. the individual segments of the mirror.

Another important factor that Webb has to deal with is heat, since the telescope must be ultracold to make its observations in the infrared.

“To limit the amount of heat the actuator motors put into Webb’s very cold mirrors, each actuator can only be operated for a short period at a time,” Perrin said. “So those big 12.5-millimeter movements for each segment break down into many, many short movements that happen with one actuator at a time.”

Webb’s mission operations center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center sends scripts to the telescope, which operates under human supervision. “At full speed, it takes about a day to move all the segments by just 1 millimeter. That’s about the same speed grass grows,” Perrin said.

As Webb continues his adjustments, the mirrors and instruments will continue to cool from natural radiation to space after launch. The telescope’s next big space maneuver will be on January 23, when the mission team expects it to fire up and glide toward its last “parking spot” in space known as L2, or the second Lagrange point on Earth. -Sun, a gravitationally stable point point in space. Webb will orbit the sun from this location during his lifetime.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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