More powerful than the Hubble space telescope, NASA built a $10 billion Webb. It will scan the cosmos for light streaming from other planetary bodies around 13.7 billion years ago. The Webb is so foldable that it was fit into the African rocket earlier and sent to space. The riskiest part of the launch was the opening of the Webb, the “golden eye,” as scientists call it being the largest and most sensitive mirror ever launched.
NASA’s new space telescope opened its huge, gold-plated, flower-shaped mirror Saturday, the final step in the observatory’s dramatic unfurling. The last portion of the 21-foot mirror swung into place at flight controllers’ command, completing the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope.
“I’m emotional about it. What an amazing milestone. We see that beautiful pattern out there in the sky now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, chief of NASA’s science missions. The riskiest operation occurred earlier in the week, when the tennis court-size sun shield unfurled, providing subzero shade for the mirror and infrared detectors.
Flight controllers in Baltimore began opening the primary mirror Friday, unfolding the left side like a drop-leaf table. The mood was even more upbeat Saturday, with peppy music filling the control room as the right side snapped into place. Zurbuchen said, “We have a deployed telescope on orbit, a magnificent telescope the likes of which the world has never seen. So how does it feel to make history, everybody? You just did it.”
Webb’s main mirror
Webb’s main mirror is made of beryllium, a lightweight yet sturdy and cold-resistant metal. Each of its 18 segments is coated with an ultra-thin layer of gold, highly reflective of infrared light. The hexagonal, coffee table-size segments must be adjusted in the weeks ahead so they can focus as one on stars and galaxies that might hold atmospheric signs of life.
Operations project scientist Jane Rigby told, “It’s like we have 18 mirrors that are right now little prima donnas all doing their own thing, singing their own tune in whatever key they’re in, and we have to make them work as a chorus and that is a methodical, laborious process,”
Webb is expected to reach the destination 1 million miles away in another two weeks. It’s already more than 667,000 miles from Earth since its Christmas Day launch. If all continues to go well, science observations will begin this summer. Astronomers hope to peer back to within 100 million years of the universe-forming Big Bang, closer than Hubble has achieved.