James Webb Space Telescope starts unfolding delicate, huge sun shield

NASA’s huge new space observatory has entered its most hazardous stage yet as it starts the careful process of spreading out its fragile sun shield.

The James Webb Space Telescope launched on Sunday (Dec. 25) and will be a progressive new observatory focused on studying the universe in infrared light. On the whole, it needs to survive a month-long trek out to its final post and a carefully choreographed deployment process.

On Tuesday (Dec. 28), the spacecraft notched one more key stage in that deployment as it unfolded the Forward Unitized Pallet Structure (UPS) of its huge sun shield, as indicated by a NASA statement. The process required four hours and closed at 1:21 p.m. EST (1821 GMT), as per the agency. Webb then, at that point, copied that process with the Aft UPS, which completed the process of sending at around 7:27 p.m. EST on Tuesday (0027 Dec. 29 GMT), the agency said in an update.

Unfolding the forward UPS included many individual steps, NASA authorities composed. The successful maneuver denotes the first step in the five-day-long process of setting up the sun shield, which will protect Webb’s sensitive instruments from the sun’s radiation.

“While the actual motion to lower the forward pallet from its stowed to its deployed position took only 20 minutes, and the lowering of the aft pallet took only 18 minutes, the overall process took several hours for each because of the dozens of additional steps required,” NASA officials said in a statement. “These include closely monitoring structural temperatures, maneuvering the observatory with respect to the sun to provide optimal temperatures, turning on heaters to warm key components, activating release mechanisms, configuring electronics and software, and ultimately latching the pallets into place.”

The sunshield deployment process will probably complete around Jan. 3, albeit each phase of the deployment sequence is controlled from the beginning the timetable can be changed as NASA and its partners see fit.

Subsequent to unfolding the two UPS structures, Webb’s next key steps will be to unfold the Deployable Tower Assembly, release the sun shield cover and start spreading out the sun shield itself.

Assuming all works out as expected, the observatory will be in its final configuration and orbit within one month of launch. The spacecraft will orbit Earth-sun Lagrange point 2, or L2, a point found almost around 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth as an afterthought inverse to the sun. Like the delicate sun shield, this location is pivotal for permitting the instruments to accumulate infrared observations.