James Webb Telescope: NASA’s Hardest Work

MINERAL CAPE, FLA. – NASA has done the most important and complex work on the new space telescope launched on Tuesday: roll and stretch a sunshade the size of a tennis court.

The ground controllers cheered and fisted as the fifth and final layers of the sunshade were held firmly. It took just a day and a half to tighten the ultrathin layers with motor-driven cables, halving the expected time.

The 7-ton James Webb Space Telescope is so large that the main gilded windshield and mirror had to be folded in order to launch. The sunshade is particularly difficult to use – it extends 70 feet by 46 feet (21 meters by 14 meters) to keep all infrared, touch-sensitive scientific instruments in constant darkness.

The next mirrors will be released later this week.

The $10 billion telescope is more than halfway to its destination 1 million miles (1.6 million km) away, after it set off on Christmas Day. It is the largest and most powerful observatory ever launched – 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope – allowing it to go back almost to the beginning.

Billed as Hubble’s successor, Webb will attempt to search for light from the universe’s first stars and galaxies, created 3.7 billion years ago.

“This is a really big moment,” said project manager Bill Ochs to the control team in Baltimore. “We still have a lot of work to do, but getting the sunshades out and about is really, really big.”

Engineers spent years redoing and adjusting the shade. At one point, dozens of screws fell off during a vibration test. That makes Tuesday’s success even sweeter, as nothing like this has ever been done in space before.

“First time and we nailed it,” engineer Alphonso Stewart told reporters.


The Associated Press Health and Science Division receives support from the Howard Hughes Health Institute’s Science Education Department. AP is solely responsible for all content.


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