NASA’s incredibly powerful James Webb Space Telescope has been in space for three days now, but perhaps the riskiest part of its journey to deep space is just getting underway. Soon, the telescope will initiate an intricately choreographed mechanical dance as it slowly contorts its shape and unfurls, in order to reach its final form for observing the distant cosmos.
It’s a type of reverse space origami that’s never been performed before, but it’s absolutely necessary for the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, to fulfill its mission. The telescope was simply too massive to launch on any operational rocket while fully extended. So when it catapulted into space on top of a European Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas Day, it made the nail-biting trip folded in on itself like the world’s most expensive Swiss Army knife.
Now over the course of the next two weeks, JWST will twist and reshape — deploying one beam here, a mirror there — until it is completely configured for peering into the deepest parts of the Universe. “We sometimes call Webb the ‘Transformer Telescope,’” Amy Lo, the JWST alignments engineer at the telescope’s primary contractor Northrop Grumman, tells The Verge. It’s a daunting process with hundreds of moving parts that engineers have tested over and over again on the ground, as it has to be nothing short of flawless. But there are many points along the way where the failure of one small release mechanism or pulley could jeopardize the future of the entire JWST mission. While mission controllers on the ground have a few troubleshooting techniques they can employ if something gets stuck, ultimately the JWST spacecraft must do every deployment on its own to near perfection.
To read more, click here.