January 29, 2022

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NASA begins extending the Sun Webb Space Telescope’s Sun Shield – Space – Science and Technology

Today, around 4:00 PM CET, NASA engineers began laying the shield on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will protect the cameras from the sun’s heat.

They announced this at a press conference, during which they also confirmed that nine days after the launch from the ground, the facility is in good condition, although the team has faced two minor complications in recent days. So far, the telescope has traveled more than 60 percent of its way to its target location, more than 1.5 million kilometers from Earth.

Today, NASA hosted its first press conference since the launch of the rocket with the telescope on December 25. According to their engineers, they learn about the work of the observatory in space, because some characteristics of the machine cannot be sufficiently imitated in simulations.

According to the original plan, the stretch of sunlight was supposed to begin on Saturday, but NASA decided to give its engineers a day off for the New Year, and on Sunday it dealt with two minor complications.

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On the other hand, the telescope’s solar panels didn’t produce as much power as the engineers expected, so they had to adjust their settings slightly compared to those the telescope still has from Earth. The second problem concerns motorcycles, which are responsible for the development and tension of the sunshade itself. Their temperature was higher than they expected, so the control center slightly modified the telescope’s rotation toward the sun to provide them with adequate cooling.

However, today everything is ready to extend the shield, which will be a delicate and multi-day operation, on which the success of the entire mission depends. While it is in operation, the telescope will be permanently pointed with a shield toward the sun, and its giant mirror and detectors will be on the other side. On the “hot” side of the facility, the temperature can rise to 110 degrees Celsius, but the other side must keep the temperature below minus 223 degrees Celsius for the observatory to operate successfully.

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The heat shield consists of five layers of a special material called Kapton. The outer layer, which will be the only one that will be exposed to direct sunlight, is 0.05mm thick, the other four are twice as thick, and have about the thickness of a human hair.

The James Webb Telescope is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever launched by humans. Unlike the Hubble telescope, it will not observe the universe from low Earth orbit, but from the second Lagrangian point (L2), where the gravitational forces of the Earth and the sun balance. As a result, the telescope can maintain its stable position while being far enough from the sun to capture the very faint infrared rays that reach its mirrors from the first stars and galaxies that formed 13.5 billion years ago.

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The telescope is expected to reach its final orbit around L2 at the end of January. This will be followed by several months of very careful calibrations. The first photos should be available in the middle of the year. Given the telescope’s long distance from Earth, it’s essentially implausible that the instrument can be repaired if any of its components prove faulty, as was the case with the Hubble telescope. This is one of the reasons why the development of the James Webb Telescope took several decades, and this fact also limits the life of the entire observatory. The telescope will have to adjust its position slightly to stay in the desired orbit, and it must have enough fuel for at least ten years of operation.

One of the NASA engineers said that, according to the development of the flight so far, the telescope’s fuel could last several years longer. However, according to him, it is not yet clear how exactly the device will continue to consume it before its operation.

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