Your NPR news source

Some Assembly Required: New Space Telescope Will Take Shape After Launch

The James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing its final series of tests in NASA workshops. It’s designed to take even grander images than the Hubble telescope. But deploying it will be a major feat.

SHARE Some Assembly Required: New Space Telescope Will Take Shape After Launch

The next generation of great space telescopes is heading into its final round of ground tests. The nearly $9 billion James Webb Space Telescope will replace the aging Hubble Space Telescope. It’s designed to provide unprecedented images of the earliest stars and galaxies that formed in the universe.

But before the telescope can get to work, there are still a lot of engineering challenges to overcome.

For example, the Webb telescope is designed to look at the infrared wavelengths of light given off by stars. Infrared is needed to see some of the earliest stars and galaxies that formed billions of years ago.

But to work properly, infrared telescopes have to be kept cold — very cold. So engineers had to design a multilayered sun shield to protect the telescope from the sun’s heat.

“That’s like a big umbrella — beach umbrella — so, we keep that facing the sun and the Earth so it dissipates all the heat through all the layers,” says Begoña Vila, an astrophysicist and systems engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Md. “That allows all the instruments to cool to the temperatures that we need.”

Now, the sun shield is big, about the size of a tennis court, and for launch it has to fit into a much smaller space — about the size of a school bus. So engineers had to come up with a way to fold it up. They also had to design a way to fold up the main mirror, and several other critical instruments.

Then, after launch, everything has to unfold in a carefully choreographed sequence of steps over two weeks. You can see that sequence in this video.

Many of the steps are absolutely crucial. A failure would compromise the telescope’s functionality and could render it useless. For the army of scientists and engineers who have been working on the telescope for nearly two decades, the deployment phase will be nerve-wracking.

“Yes, I think that scares all of us,” says Vila. But there’s no way around it. “We do as much testing as we can.”

The Webb telescope has had a difficult history. It is over budget and behind schedule, and Congress nearly killed the project earlier in the decade. The telescope is scheduled to launch in October 2018. We should know later that year whether the engineering challenges were successfully cleared.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

The Latest
Lomelok, a lion cub born in 2023, had undergone an unprecedented surgery in March to alleviate mobility issues caused by a deformity in his lower spine.
Chicago is one of the deadliest cities for migrating birds, according to recent reporting in the Chicago Tribune. But now an ordinance that would make building standards more bird-friendly could pass after a years-long delay. Reset hears from two advocates about the details and the importance of Chicago as a stopover for more than 250 species of migratory birds. GUESTS: Judy Pollock, president of the Chicago Audubon Society Annette Prince, chair of Bird Friendly Chicago and director of Chicago Bird Collision Monitors
Scientists recently managed to generate a net energy gain through atomic particle fusion, a big step toward a future source of green energy. Reset learns how far we are from wide use of that energy source. GUEST: Evan Halper, Washington Post business reporter covering the energy transition
Several varieties of furry fliers are likely closer than you think. Given the rampant spread of a deadly bat disease, we’re lucky to find the critters here at all.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature added the migrating monarch butterfly for to its “red list” of threatened species and categorized it as “endangered” — two steps from extinct.