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NASA nails trickiest job on newly launched space telescope

Marcia Dunn

CAPE CANAVERAL, FLORIDA (AP) – NASA aced the most complicated, critical job on its newly launched space telescope on Tuesday: unrolling and stretching a sunshade the size of a tennis court.

Ground controllers cheered and bumped fists once the fifth and final layer of the sunshield was tightly secured. It took just one and a half days to tighten the ultra-thin layers using motor-driven cables, half the expected time.

The seven-tonne James Webb Space Telescope is so big that the sunshield and the primary gold-plated mirror had to be folded for launch. The sunshield is especially unwieldly – it spans 21 metres by 14 metres to keep all the infrared, heat-sensing science instruments in constant subzero shadow.

The mirrors are next up for release this weekend.

The USD10 billion telescope is more than halfway toward its destination 1.6 million kilometres away, following its Christmas Day send-off. It is the biggest and most powerful observatory ever launched – 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope – enabling it to peer back to almost the beginning of time. Considered Hubble’s successor, Webb will attempt to hunt down light from the universe’s first stars and galaxies, created 13.7 billion years ago.

“This is a really big moment,” project manager Bill Ochs told the control team in Baltimore. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do, but getting the sunshield out and deployed is really, really big.”

Engineers spent years redoing and tweaking the shade. At one point, dozens of fasteners fell off during a vibration test. That made Tuesday’s success all the sweeter, since nothing like this had ever been attempted before in space.

“First time and we nailed it,” engineer Alphonso Stewart told reporters.

This combination of images from a computer animation made available by NASA in December 2021 depicts the unfolding of the components of the James Webb Space Telescope. PHOTO: AP
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