NASA did the most complicated and critical job on its newly launched space telescope on Tuesday – unrolling and stretching a sunshade the size of a tennis court.
Ground controllers cheered and banged their fists once the fifth and final visor coat was secure. It only took a day and a half to tighten the ultra-thin layers using motorized cables – half the time expected.
The 7-ton James Webb Space Telescope is so big that the sunshade and gold-plated main mirror had to be bent for launch. The sun visor is particularly unwieldy – it spans 70 feet by 46 feet to keep all infrared and heat-sensitive science instruments in constant sub-zero shadow.
The mirrors should be released this weekend.
The $ 10 billion telescope is more than half of its destination at 1 million kilometers, after it was dispatched on Christmas Day. It is the largest and most powerful observatory ever launched – 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope – allowing it to peer into almost the beginning of time.
Seen as the successor to Hubble, Webb will attempt to hunt down the light of the first stars and galaxies in the universe, created 3.7 billion years ago.
“It’s a really big moment,” project manager Bill Ochs told the monitoring team in Baltimore. “We still have a lot of work to do, but removing and deploying the sunshade is really, really important. ”
Engineers have spent years redoing and fine-tuning the shade. At one point, dozens of fasteners fell off during a vibration test. This made Tuesday’s success all the sweeter, since nothing like it had never been attempted before in space.
“This is the first time and we have succeeded,” engineer Alphonso Stewart told reporters.
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