NASA technicians have successfully fully deployed the massive sunshield protecting the James Webb Space Telescope, the US space agency announced in a statement on Tuesday (local time).
“The James Webb Space Telescope team has fully deployed the spacecraft’s 70-foot sunshield, a key milestone in preparing it for science operations,” the release said.
The sunshield – about the size of a tennis court at full size – was folded to fit inside the payload area of an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket’s nose cone prior to launch. The Webb team began remotely deploying the sunshield on Decemebr 28, 2021, three days after launch, added the release.
“Two pallet structures – forward and aft – unfolded to bring the observatory to its full 70-foot length. The Deployable Tower Assembly deployed to separate the telescope and instruments from the sunshield and the main body of the spacecraft, allowing room for the sunshield to fully deploy,” stated the release.
Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington said: “This is the first time anyone has ever attempted to put a telescope this large into space.”
“Webb required not only careful assembly but also careful deployments. The success of its most challenging deployment – the sunshield – is an incredible testament to the human ingenuity and engineering skill that will enable Webb to accomplish its science goals,” Zurbuchen said further in the statement.
The five-layered sunshield will protect the telescope from the light and heat of the Sun, Earth, and Moon. Each plastic sheet is about as thin as a human hair and coated with reflective metal, providing protection on the order of more than SPF 1 million, according to the release.
Together, the five layers reduce exposure from the Sun from over 200 kilowatts of solar energy to a fraction of a watt, it added.
This protection is crucial to keep Webb’s scientific instruments at temperatures of 40 kelvins, or under minus 380 degrees Fahrenheit – cold enough to see the faint infrared light that Webb seeks to observe.
“Unfolding Webb’s sunshield in space is an incredible milestone, crucial to the success of the mission,” said Gregory L Robinson, Webb’s program director at NASA Headquarters. “Thousands of parts had to work with precision for this marvel of engineering to fully unfurl. The team has accomplished an audacious feat with the complexity of this deployment – one of the boldest undertakings yet for Webb.”
Then at 11:59 a.m. Eastern Standard Time on Tuesday, the sunshield was fully tensioned and put in position, the release added.
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