Two decades in the making: NASA completes most powerful space telescope

The largest and most expensive space telescope in history is finally complete, NASA announced last week. The 20-year project to construct the James Webb Telescope came to an end, and the first significant pretest has been conducted.

The final pieces of the telescope included five tennis court-sized sunshields that will protect the telescope’s infrared sensors from the sun’s background heat. Although huge in length, each sunshield is no thicker than a human hair.

“The completed sunshield membranes are the culmination of years of collaborative effort by the NeXolve, Northrop Grumman, and NASA team,” Webb telescope Sunshield manager James Cooper said in a press release. “All five layers are beautifully executed and exceed their requirements. This is another big milestone for the Webb telescope project.”

With a 21-foot wide, gold-coated mirror array, the telescope is more than twice the size of the Hubble Space Telescope, with a light-collecting area five times as large. With $8.7 billion in construction and operations costs, it’s more than four times as expensive as its predecessor. With such expense and size comes great power — scientists hope to glimpse the first light of the universe, those distant stars and galaxies that formed following the Big Bang.

In order to launch the beast of a satellite into orbit, the Webb telescope will need to be packed compactly into a bullet-shaped capsule. The sunshields will be folded 12 times and unravel once the satellite is deployed about 930,000 miles above Earth.

“The groundbreaking sunshield design will assist in providing the imaging of the formation of stars and galaxies more than 13.5 billion years ago,” Webb sunshield manager Jim Flynn said. “The delivery of this final flight sunshield membrane is a significant milestone as we prepare for 2018 launch.”

Until the scheduled launch in October 2018, NASA contractor Northrop Grumman will conduct testing on the sunshield’s folding and deployment mechanics.

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