James Webb Space Telescope mission is proceeding as expected

When it comes to superstition, NASA and the baseball team see the world in different ways. It’s one of the unwritten rules of baseball that when a pitcher throws a player off target, say seven innings, you never mention it out loud. Speaking of which is to jinx it, and there’s a higher chance that you’ll get clothes in the eighth installment.

NASA, apparently, has a different approach. In the 13 days since Christmas morning’s debut of James Webb . Space Telescope– the most complex and powerful space observatory ever built – the space agency successfully did it after a successful mission, getting the telescope to open, align and launch, and keep it on track to its destination 1.6 million kilometers (1 million mi.) away from Earth at a gravitationally stable point called L2, where it will be stationed for the next decade, peering deeper into space than any telescope any prospect that has ever existed before. The space agency hasn’t been too shy to talk about its successes, even hosting a kind Webb Dashboard, with regular updates on the telescope’s position in space and the milestones it has passed.
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Such early enthusiasm, if cautious, is understandable, as the challenges Webb faced prior to launch were tough. The $10 billion telescope — essentially consisting of an 18-segment, 6.5 m (21.3 ft) mirror and a sunshade the size of a tennis court — must be folded small enough to fit the 5 m (16 ft) payload bay of the Ariane 5 rocket that launched it, which was then launched into space and unfolded in a process that one team leader Webb described as “reverse origami”. That will never be easy. Hundreds of hinges, pulleys, actuators, and more must work in perfect sync, past 344 so-called “single-point failures”—a single failure that by itself can mark a failure the end of the mission.

Far and away, the most challenging step is opening the sunshade, a fragile structure composed of five layers of kapton, a foil-like membrane — each thinner than a human hair — that protects the mirror from the sun’s heat and allowing it to operate at the extremely cold temperatures needed to observe space in infrared wavelengths, which is what gives Webb his delicate eyesight. That step was successfully completed on January 4th and NASA is ready with a celebratory tweet.

“This is it,” exclaimed the space agency, “we have just finished one of the most challenging steps of our journey to Earth. #UnfoldTheUniverse. With all five layers of sunshade tension completed, about 75% of our 344 single damage points have been fixed! ”

Webb program director Gregory Robinson was equally enthusiastic in his subsequent conversation with TIME, if a little more measured. “Certainly, I would say deploying and stretching the sunshades is probably the highest risk,” he said. “There were many others, but we got through that pretty well.”

The next important step came the next day, when the telescope auxiliary mirror — a much smaller .74 m (2.4 ft.) reflector — was deployed. The mirror is mounted on three struts seven meters (25 ft) long and will reflect the infrared signatures captured by the main mirror and direct them to the telescope’s instruments.

Lee Feinberg, Webb project manager, said: “The world’s most complex tripod has been implemented. “Webb’s secondary mirror had to deploy in zero gravity, and in extreme cold, and it ended up having to work the first time without error. It must also deploy, position, and lock itself into place to a tolerance of about one and a half millimeters. “

Behind the secondary mirror is the implementation of the main mirror – still folded like a table with leaves – a process that will begin today or Saturday. What follows is a much slower, 10-day exercise in which each of the mirror’s 18 hexagonal segments is tilted and adjusted to seven different axes — up, down, left, right, in , out and diagonal — to bring the entire mirror into focus. That will take some patience.

“It was a slow process,” says Robinson. “It’s almost like watching grass grow — although it’s some pretty grass when it’s done properly.”

Still continuing to appear online is a suite of built-in sensor tools, most importantly a near-infrared camera (NIRCam), main image of the spacecraft; and its mass spectrometer, which will allow Webb to analyze the chemistry not only of deep space objects but also the atmospheres of alien planets in our galaxy, looking for chemical signatures of methane, oxygen, carbon dioxide and more, which could provide clues to whether the planet is habitable — or even inhabited.

“A lot of the details we don’t have today about the elements of these different planets, Webb will be able to provide,” says Robinson. “That will open some doors and some minds.”

All of this work is happening while the telescope is ripping through space, more than 1 million kilometers (625,000 mi.) from Earth, about 70% of the way to its L2 destination, which it is set to reach. It will be on January 23. Once there, it will take advantage of the delicate gravitational balance of the sun and Earth and begin orbiting an invisible point as if it were orbiting a solid object like a planet, always keeping its huge kapron shield facing the sun, ensuring that the mirror remains extremely cold. The on-board cryogenic system will contribute to that natural cooling, bringing some parts of the telescope down to temperatures as low as 7 kelvin (-266º C, -447º F)

None of the discoveries Webb can make will come quickly. The telescope’s flight plan calls for it to take six months or so after launch before it is fully opened, launched, and ready to operate. For Webb, the landmark moment known as the “first light,” when a new telescope opens its eyes and begins to look at the universe around it, will come in late June or early July.

“We had a big gift on Christmas Day,” says Robinson. “Maybe our next big gift will come on July 4th.” James Webb Space Telescope mission is proceeding as expected

Aila Slisco

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