Science

Nasa's new space telescope ‘hunky-dory' after problems fixed

Webb should reach its destination one million miles away by the end of January.

Nasa’s new space telescope is doing well more than a week after lift-off, following a pair of problems overcome by ground controllers, officials have said.

The tennis court-size sunshield on the James Webb Space Telescope is now fully open and in the process of being tightened. The operation should be complete by Wednesday.

The 10 billion dollars telescope — the largest and most powerful astronomical observatory ever launched — rocketed away on Christmas Day from French Guiana. Its sunshield and primary mirror had to be folded to fit into the European Ariane rocket.

SCIENCE Telescope
(PA Graphics)

The sunshield is vital for keeping Webb’s infrared-sensing instruments at sub-zero temperatures, as they scan the universe for the first stars and galaxies, and examine the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.

Getting the sunshield extended last Friday “was really a huge achievement for us”, said project manager Bill Ochs.

All 107 release pins opened properly.

But there have been a few obstacles.

Flight controllers in Maryland had to reset Webb’s solar panel to draw more power. The observatory — considered the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope — was never in any danger, with a constant power flow, said Amy Lo, a lead engineer for the telescope’s prime contractor, Northrop Grumman.

They also repointed the telescope to limit sunlight on six overheating motors. The motors cooled enough to begin securing the sunshield, a three-day process that can be halted if the problem crops up again, officials said.

“Everything is hunky-dory and doing well now,” Ms Lo said.

SCIENCE Telescope
(PA Graphics)

Mr Ochs expects the tightening of the sunshield to be drama-free.

“The best thing for operations is boring, and that’s what we anticipate over the next three days, is to be boring,” he said.

If that holds true, the telescope’s gold-plated mirror — more than 21 feet across — could unfold as soon as this weekend.

Webb should reach its destination one million miles away by the end of January.

As of Monday, the telescope was more than halfway there. The infrared telescope should begin observing the cosmos by the end of June, ultimately unveiling the first stars and galaxies formed in the universe 13.7 billion years ago.

That is a mere 100 million years after the universe-creating Big Bang.

Launched in 1990, Hubble, which sees primarily visible light, has peered as far back as 13.4 billion years ago. Astronomers hope to close the gap with Webb, which is 100 times more powerful.

In another bit of good news on Monday, officials said they expect Webb to last well beyond the originally anticipated 10 years based on its fuel efficiency.

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