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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Prepares for Launch

  • By AMS Staff
  • May 20, 2021

A new target date for the James Webb Space Telescope is set for October 31, 2021 from French Guiana. This telescope will be an unparalleled space science observatory when it launches in 2021. This launch is an international effort, led by NASA together with the ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency. The telescope's launch will allow new insights into the mysteries and origins of our universe and our place in it. 

The Webb telescope's job is to observe objects in the distant cosmos, and to do science that’s never been done before. In order to accomplish this, the collaborating space agencies have created a mirror that is so large that when fully extended, it can't actually fit inside any rocket available to launch it into outer space. So with incredible engineering creativity, Webb has been constructed almost like a piece of origami artwork. The telescope has been specifically designed with a multitude of moving parts that fold themselves into a compact form that just barely fits inside a 16-foot (5-meter) rocket. 

To deploy, operate and focus its golden mirrors, Webb requires an astounding 132 individual actuators and motors in addition to complex backend software to support it. As NASA reminds us, a proper deployment in space is critically important to the process of fine-tuning Webb’s individual mirrors into one functional and massive reflector. Once the wings are fully extended and in place, extremely precise actuators on the backside of the mirrors position and bend or flex each mirror into a specific prescription. Testing of each actuator and their expected movements was completed in a final functional test earlier this year. 

The mirrors themselves are something of an engineering and geographic marvel: There are 18 mirror segments that form the Webb telescope's huge primary mirror. They are made from lightweight beryllium and required 14 stops in 11 different places around the U.S. to complete their manufacturing. They started their journey at beryllium mines in Utah, and then traveled across the country for processing and polishing. The mirrors made stops in eight states, visiting some states more than once, before journeying to French Guiana for lift-off and the beginning of their final journey to space.

Read more from NASA on the James Webb Space Telescope