Astronomers around the world will be watching (and perhaps biting their nails) as the Webb telescope undergoes a $10 billion, monthlong game of origami.
Tightly packed into a container atop the rocket during launch, the telescope will separate from the spacecraft in orbit after launch and spend 29 days unfolding various limbs and instruments. When it reaches its final form during its trek to a point nearly one million miles from Earth, it will blossom into a tennis court-size observatory, unfurling a large sun shield with a 21-foot-wide mirror in the center.
Webb’s solar panel array and antenna will spring out automatically within the first day. Everything after that will be controlled by mission managers on the ground, who will decide when to move forward with each subsequent deployment depending on how well the process is going.
Three days after launch, engineers will command two arms on each side of the telescope to fold down to support the telescope’s sun shield, which is 69 feet tall and 46 feet wide. The shield is a delicate five-layer blanket of thin, silvery plastic that will protect Webb’s scientific instruments from the sun’s heat. Two days after the arms unfold, the shield itself is expected to stretch out, spending two more days carefully tightening itself, a process engineers call tensioning.
Several other instruments will deploy throughout the process. Ten to 14 days after launch, the telescope’s primary mirrors will unfold and snap into place, forming its iconic beehive-like panel of gold-plated mirror segments, spanning 21 feet wide.
Twenty-nine days after launch, the telescope will reach its final destination, beyond the moon, straddling the gravitational forces of Earth and the sun. The deployment timeline could take longer, though, if mission managers decide to delay certain instrument deployments during the process.
Then, astronomers will spend six months testing communications and tweaking various settings before putting it to use, seeking ancient light from the universe’s earliest days.