James Webb Telescope: unfolding on New Year’s Eve

In New Year’s Eve, the NASA engineers succeeded in one of the most critical phases in the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope – albeit not entirely without problems. At $ 9.7 billion, the most expensive unmanned vehicle in space travel history is so huge that it only folded up to fit into the European Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket, which was launched on Christmas Day. Now “Webb” has to be unfolded in space and, in particular, the tennis court-sized sun shield has to be pulled apart by two telescopic rods on both sides of the spacecraft to a distance of 14.3 meters. According to NASA, the successful pulling up of the port side of the shield ended at 10:49 p.m. Central European Time. At 4:13 hrs, the starboard side had also been fully pulled up.

Ulf von Rauchhaupt

Responsible for the “Science” section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung.

For those responsible at NASA, the European space organization ESA and the Canadian CSA, who jointly operate Webb, a step has been taken that was looked forward to with great nervousness. Because while aerospace engineers have decades of experience with the remote-controlled deployment of rigid components on satellites and space probes – such as antennas and solar panels – the shield is a stack of a total of five wafer-thin aluminum-coated plastic films.

Shielded from the warmth of the sun

Their behavior when extending the telescopic rods cannot be completely controlled. It’s like pulling a rope that is loosely compressed on a table – the change in shape cannot be predicted in detail, Mike Menzel from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told the specialist portal “Spaceflight Now”. In addition, the packed film for the rocket launch was fixed with 107 actuators, all of which had to be properly detached last night. If even one of them hadn’t responded to the signals from the ground control at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, this could have meant the failure of the entire company, which had been prepared for about three decades.

The James Webb Space Telescope



The flight of the butterfly
Image: EPA

Because without the huge sun shield, the telescope optics made of gold-plated beryllium could not be shielded from the heat of the sun and cooled to its operating temperature of less than 50 degrees above absolute zero. The instrument would then itself glow in the infrared thermal radiation that it is intended to observe in order to explore the earliest stars and galaxies, young solar systems veiled by cosmic clouds, or the atmospheres of planets around other stars.


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