Astronomers around the world will be watching (and maybe biting their nails) the Webb Telescope undergo a $ 10 billion month-long origami set.
Well packaged in a container atop the rocket during launch, the telescope will separate from the orbiting spacecraft after launch and spend 29 days deploying various limbs and instruments. When it reaches its final form on its journey to a point nearly a million kilometers from Earth, it will blossom into an observatory the size of a tennis court, deploying a large sun visor with a 21-foot-wide mirror in the center.
Webb’s array of solar panels and antenna will automatically go out on the first day. Everything after that will be monitored by the Field Mission Heads, who will decide when to go ahead with each subsequent deployment depending on how advanced the process is.
Three days after launch, engineers will order two arms on either side of the telescope to fold back to support the telescope’s sunshade, which is 69 feet high and 46 feet wide. The shield is a delicate five-layer blanket of thin, silver plastic that will protect Webb’s scientific instruments from the heat of the sun. Two days after the arms deploy, the shield itself should stretch, spending two more days carefully tightening, which process engineers call tension.
Several other instruments will be deployed throughout the process. Ten to 14 days after launch, the telescope’s primary mirrors will unfold and snap into place, forming its iconic beehive-shaped panel of gold-plated mirror segments, spanning 21 feet wide.
Twenty-nine days after its launch, the telescope will reach its final destination, beyond the moon, astride the gravitational forces of the Earth and the sun. However, the deployment schedule could be longer if the Heads of Mission decide to delay some instrument deployments during the process.
Next, astronomers will spend six months testing communications and tweaking various parameters before using them, looking for ancient light from the early days of the universe.