James Webb Is About to Stretch Out Its Sunshield

The tensioning could take days.
Loukia Papadopoulos
An illustration of JWST in its final shape. Kevin Gill / Flickr

We have been following the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) since its launch on Christmas day as it continues toward its final destination as well as its journey to unfurl into its final shape. A few days ago we brought you news of the telescope beginning to extend its primary and secondary mirrors, a deployment that was deemed very high risk due to its unique nature.

Indeed, nothing like this has ever been attempted in space before ensuring that we hold our breaths each time the JWTS embarks on the next steps of its six-month journey to fully transform into its final configuration and begin its science mission. Now, NASA is reporting that the telescope just successfully completed another step in its impressive transformation.

"With the successful extension of Webb’s second sunshield mid-boom, the observatory has passed another critical deployment milestone. Webb’s sunshield now resembles its full, kite-shaped form in space," said NASA in a statement.

This was no small feat as all 107 membrane release devices, that were used to keep the sunshield safe and folded prior to deployment, had to work effectively for the sunshield to take shape. The sunshield has now reached its full glorious 47-foot (14.32 m) width, spanning all the way across the observatory.

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“The mid-booms are the sunshield’s workhorse and do the heavy lifting to unfold and pull the membranes into that now-iconic shape,” said Keith Parrish, Webb observatory manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

This means that over the next few days, the JWST can proceed to separate each of its five sunshield layers, creating space between the membranes to allow heat to radiate out, ensuring that each successive layer, beginning with the one closest to the Sun, can be cooler than the one below. This next phase of deployment is expected to last about two days. Will it be as successful as all the past stages? One can only hope!

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