NASA on Wednesday embarked on a month-long, arduous process of bringing its newly launched James Webb Space Telescope into focus, a task that must be completed in time for the revolutionary eye in the sky to peer out into the cosmos in early summer.
Mission control engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, began sending their first commands to tiny motors called actuators that slowly position and fine-tune the telescope’s primary mirror.
The main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments made of gold-plated beryllium metal and measures 6.5 m in diameter – a much larger light-collecting surface than Webb’s predecessor, the 30-year-old Hubble space telescope.
The 18 segments, which were collapsed to fit in the hold of the rocket that launched the telescope into space, were deployed with the remaining structural components within two weeks of Webb’s launch on December 25th.
These segments now need to be detached from the fasteners that held them up for launch and then moved forward half an inch from their original configuration – a 10 day process – before they can be aligned to create a single, uninterrupted, to form light-collecting surface.
Alignment will take another three months, Lee Feinberg, Webb’s optical telescopic element manager at Goddard, told Reuters by phone.
Aligning the primary mirror segments to form a large mirror means that each segment is “aligned to one five-thousandth the thickness of a human hair,” Feinberg said.
“All of this required that we had to invent things that had never been done before,” like the actuators, which were built to move incrementally at -400 Fahrenheit (-240 Celsius) in the vacuum of space, he added .
The telescope’s smaller secondary mirror, designed to direct the light collected by the primary lens onto Webb’s camera and other instruments, must also be aligned to function as part of a coherent optical system.
If everything goes as planned, the telescope should be ready by May to take its first scientific images, which would be processed for about another month before they can be made available to the public, Feinberg said.
The $ 9 billion telescope (approximately Rs 66,540 billion) is about to be described by NASA as the premier space observatory of the next decade. Hubble has worked primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.
Webb is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble and allows it to observe objects at greater distances, back in time than Hubble or any other telescope.
Astronomers say this will provide an unprecedented glimpse into the cosmos – dating just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flash point that started the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.
The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the prime contractor.
© Thomson Reuters 2022
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