James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) development has been undermined by delays since the project began back in 1996. But the finale has been brought closer by a significant milestone. For the first time, the glorious James Webb Telescope has been fully assembled.
The space observatory is being constructed at the aerospace technology company Northrop Grumman’s plant in California, and they have just successfully connected both JWST halves — the telescope and mirrors that make-up one, and the sun shield and spacecraft the other.
“The assembly of the telescope and its science tools, sun-shield and spacecraft into one observatory is an incredible accomplishment for the whole Webb team,” said NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre Webb project manager Bill Ochs.
“This milestone symbolizes the efforts of thousands of committed people across NASA, the European Space Agency, Northrop Grumman, the Canadian Space Agency, and the rest of our industrial and academic partners for more than 20 years.”
The JWST is the long-awaited successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and, due to budgetary factors and technical difficulties, its launch has been delayed several times.
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Hubble is running out of time, which was introduced in 1990. Its last service task was in 2009. Its components have failed since then-Hubble has lost three of his six gyroscopes already. However, if we are fortunate, the observatory could last another century or two.
The JWST is now scheduled to launch on March 2021, and it looks pretty good on schedule. And for both telescopes, there is certainly room in the skies. The Webb mirror has a diameter of 6.5 meters (21 feet) compared to the 2.4 meters (7.9 feet) mirror of Hubble.
The Webb telescope will also observe the skies in slightly distinct and longer wavelengths, ranging from the visible to the mid-infrared. The capacities of Hubble range from ultraviolet to near-infrared-so Webb will be able to peer over longer distances to see objects that are invisible to Hubble at high redshifts, such as early-universe galaxies.
Webb will also need to be maintained at a very cold operating temperature to observe mid-infrared wavelengths as thermal infrared radiation can interfere with the signal. That’s what the complex five-layer sun-shield is all about.
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The deployment of the sun-shield is the next step for the Webb team. This is the part that had technical issues in 2017. Several tears were found in the sheets of silicon and aluminium-coated polyimide, due to “workmanship error.”
The sun-shield, like all the other parts, has since been tested separately. Now the goal is to see if they function on the fully mounted telescope as designed, with a complete battery of installation and environmental testing.
“This is an exciting time to see all the sections of Webb eventually join together for the very first time in a single observatory,” said NASA HQ’s Webb program director Gregory Robinson.
“A huge step forward has been accomplished by the engineering team and we will soon be able to see incredible new views of our amazing universe.”