The James Webb Space Telescope has been launched three days ago and is on its journey to the second Lagrange point.
The telescope will start stretching its primary and secondary mirrors, along with its delicate sunshield, in a “reverse origami” over the next two weeks, according to The Verge. This is a massively risky operation as it is entirely unprecedented.
“We sometimes call Webb the ‘Transformer Telescope,’” Amy Lo, a James Webb Space Telescope alignments engineer at Northrop Grumman, the telescope’s primary contractor, told The Verge this week.
The primary mirror of the telescope is 21.5 feet in height and its sunshield is about the size of a tennis court. This size couldn’t be sent to space assembled.
It needed to be fit on the Ariane 5 rocket that was sent on December 25. That is why it was intently folded up and designed with hundreds of additional mechanisms that could unfold the telescope into a functional form once it had been launched into space.
The infamous 344 single points of failure in the Telescope will be tested over the course of the coming two weeks.
Webb has already traveled beyond the average altitude of the Moon. This means no physical correction can be done on it.
“I actually strongly believe it’s not possible to make it simpler within the constraints that we have,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s science mission directorate, told The Verge. “This is what it is.”
The unfolding procedure has been repeatedly tested on Earth to ensure that everything will work smoothly, and NASA does not have an elaborate plan B if it fails to work.
If things do not work out, $10 billion and so many years would have been wasted. If all goes according to plan, however, the telescope will be ready to observe the distant cosmos with its massive primary mirror.
The telescope’s iconic golden honeycomb-shaped primary mirror has 6.25 times as much light-collecting surface area as Hubble and uses infrared sensors that are capable of seeing the earliest galaxies and stars to form in the early universe.