James Webb Space Telescope Unfolds Its Sunshield in Test

To ensure success, technicians carefully review the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshade before deployment tests begin as they occur, and do a full post-test analysis to ensure the observatory is performing as planned. NASA / Chris Gunn

Progress in testing NASA’s next generation telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is back on track after delays this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Recently, the James Webb unfolded its massive solar protection in a series of voltage tests preparing the telescope for launch next year.

In the final test, the telescope used its tennis court-sized sunshade, which protects the telescope’s sensitive electronics from the heat of the sun. “This will be one of Webb’s greatest achievements in 2020,” said Alphonso Stewart, head of Webb delivery systems, in a statement. “We were able to precisely synchronize the deployment movement very slowly and in a controlled manner and maintain its critical kite-like shape, which means that it is ready to perform these actions in space.”

The tests put the hardware through its paces, including 139 actuators, eight motors, and thousands of other components that control the complex deployment process. Testing is made even more difficult by the fact that unfolding in space will occur without gravity, but here on Earth, gravity can cause friction problems.

The telescope, which will be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and will look for habitable worlds among other things, has faced a number of delays, including working on the project that has been suspended due to the coronavirus. But the work is on again. The team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, are testing hardware to make sure everything is ready to go.

The team is confident that the telescope can launch in 2021. “This milestone signals that Webb is well on its way to being ready to go. Our engineers and technicians have made incredible testing progress this month and have significantly reduced the risk to the project by meeting these milestones for launching next year, ”said Bill Ochs, project manager at Webb, in the statement. “The team is now preparing for the final post-environmental test at the observatory over the next few months before it is delivered to the launch site next summer.”

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