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James Webb Space Telescope: NASA begins months-long process of bringing space observatory into focus

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NASA on Wednesday began a months-long, painstaking process of bringing into focus its newly launched James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to be completed just in time for a revolutionary eye in the sky that begins to peek at the universe in early summer. There is a task to be done.

Mission control engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, began their initial command by sending small motors called actuators that slowly position and fix the telescope’s lead mirror.

Consisting of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal, the primary mirror measures 21 feet 4 inches (6.5 m) in diameter – a much larger light-collecting surface than Webb’s predecessor, the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

During the two-week period following Webb’s launch on December 25, 18 segments, which were folded together to fit inside the rocket’s cargo bay, carried the telescope into space, along with the rest of its structural components. was hoisted.

Those segments must now be separated from the fasteners that hold them in place for launch and then move half an inch from their original configuration – a 10-day process – before they can form a single, monolithic, light-collecting able to combine to form a surface.

Lee Feinberg, Webb Optical Telescope Element Manager at Goddard, told Reuters by telephone that the alignment would take an additional three months.

Feinberg said that aligning the primary mirror segments to form one large mirror meant that each segment is “connected to one-fifth-thousandth of the thickness of a human hair”.

“All of this requires us to invent things that have never been done before,” he said, such as actuators, which were built to grow at -400 Fahrenheit (-240 Celsius) in the vacuum of space. , They said.

The telescope’s smaller, secondary mirror, which is designed to direct the collected light from the primary lens into Webb’s cameras and other instruments, must also be aligned to operate as part of a cohesive optical system.

If all goes according to plan, the telescope should be ready to capture its first science images in May, which will be processed in about another month before being released to the public, Feinberg said.

The $9 billion (about Rs 66,540 crore) telescope, described by NASA as the leading space-science observatory of the next decade, will primarily observe the universe in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to gaze through clouds of gas and dust where the stars are . are being born. Hubble worked primarily on optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Webb is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble, which enables it to observe objects at greater distances than Hubble or any other telescope, thus premature.

Astronomers say this will provide a glimpse of the universe that has never been seen before – just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that triggered the expansion of the observable universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor.

© Thomson Reuters 2022


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