Space telescope’s ‘golden eye’ opens, the last big barrier


NASA’s new space telescope opened its giant, gilded, flower-shaped mirror on Saturday, the final step in the observatory’s dramatic expansion.

The final portion of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror rotates into position at the behest of flight controllers, completing the opening of the James Webb Space Telescope.

“I was very emotional about it. What an amazing milestone. “We’ve now seen that beautiful pattern in the sky,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s chief science officer.

More powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, the $10 billion Webb will scan the universe for streams of light from the first stars and galaxies that formed 13.7 billion years ago. To accomplish this, NASA had to equip Webb with the largest and most sensitive mirror ever launched – its “golden eye”, as scientists call it.

Webb is so large that it had to be folded in an orgami fashion to fit a rocket that flew from South America two weeks ago. The riskiest activity occurs early in the week, when the tennis court-sized sunshade opens, casting shade for the mirrors and infrared detectors.

Flight attendants in Baltimore began opening the main mirror on Friday, which unfolds to the left side like a drop table. The mood was even more upbeat on Saturday, with upbeat music filling the control room as the right side was fixed into place. After applauding, the controllers immediately got to work, closing everything.

This mirror is made of beryllium, a metal that is light but strong and resistant to cold. Each of its 18 segments is coated with an ultra-thin layer of gold, which is highly reflective of infrared light. The coffee table-sized, hexagonal segments must be adjusted in the coming days and weeks so they can focus as one on the stars, galaxies and alien worlds that may contain signs of life in the atmosphere.

Webb will reach its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million km) away in two weeks. If all goes well, scientific observations will begin this summer. Astronomers hope to be able to look back to within 100 million years of the Big Bang that formed the universe, closer than Hubble has achieved.

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