Associated PressJanuary 4, 2022 11:14:41 IS
Cape Canaveral: NASA’s new space telescope is on the verge of completing the most risky part of its mission – unfolding and tightening a huge awning – after ground controllers solved a few problems, officials said Monday.
The sunshade the size of a tennis court on the James Webb Space Telescope is now fully open and in the process of being stretched tight. The operation was to be completed on Wednesday.
The $ 10 billion telescope – the largest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever launched – rocketed away on Christmas Day from French Guiana. Its sun visor and primary mirror had to be folded to fit into the European Ariane rocket.
The Sun Shield is crucial in keeping Webb’s infrared sensor instruments at minus degrees, as they scan the universe for the first stars and galaxies and examine the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.
Getting the sunshade extended last Friday “was really a huge feat for us,” said project manager Bill Ochs. All 107 release pins opened correctly.
But there have been a few obstacles.
Air traffic controllers in Maryland had to reset Web’s solar panel to draw more power. The observatory – considered the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope – was never in danger of a constant current flow, said Amy Lo, a senior engineer for the telescope’s main contractor, Northrop Grumman.
They also reoriented the telescope to limit sunlight on six overheated engines. The engines have cooled enough to begin securing the sun visor, a three-day process that can be stopped if the problem reappears, officials said.
“Everything is hunky-dory and doing well now,” Lo said.
Ochs expects the tightening of the sunshade to be drama-free.
“The best thing about surgery is boring, and that’s what we expect over the next three days is to get boring,” he told reporters at a teleconference.
If stuck, the telescope’s gold-plated mirror – more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) across – could unfold as soon as this weekend.
Webb was to reach its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) away by the end of January. From Monday, the telescope was more than halfway there. The infrared telescope was to begin observing the cosmos in late June and eventually reveal the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe 13.7 billion years ago. It is only 100 million years after the universe-creating Big Bang.
Hubble, which primarily sees visible light, was launched in 1990, and has looked as far back as 13.4 billion years ago. Astronomers hope to close the gap with Webb, which is 100 times stronger.
In another good news Monday, officials said they expect Webb to last well beyond the originally expected 10 years based on its fuel efficiency.
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