Watch the James Webb Space Telescope deploy its massive origami mirror

The successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, has passed an important test by deploying its huge mirror into the configuration it will use once launched into space.

The telescope’s primary mirror is 6.5 meters across, the biggest NASA has ever created, and it will make the telescope the most powerful ever built once it is completed. The mirror is so large it can’t fit into a rocket, so it folds up like origami to fit into the 5-meter space available in the payload fairing and will then deploy to its full size once in space. Testing the deployment required the use of special gravity offsetting equipment which simulates a zero-gravity environment.

“Deploying both wings of the telescope while part of the fully assembled observatory is another significant milestone showing Webb will deploy properly in space,” Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement. “This is a great achievement and an inspiring image for the entire team.”

Deployment tests like these help safeguard mission success by physically demonstrating that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is able to move and unfold as intended.
Deployment tests like these help safeguard mission success by physically demonstrating that NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is able to move and unfold as intended. NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb project had been making progress, such as when it successfully deployed its tennis court-sized sunshield in a test last year. However, ongoing issues with delays meant that a report in January stated that the project was unlikely to meet its planned launch date of November 2020. Then, with the global outbreak of coronavirus, officially called COVID-19, the NASA project had to be put on hold.

The test of the mirror was performed before work was suspended, in early March. The current status of the project is that the Northrop Grumman team working on the telescope has resumed work on integration and testing with reduced personnel and will continue to work for a few more weeks until the setup of the Deployable Tower Assembly is complete. Then the Northrop Grumman team will also suspend its work as it cannot continue without the input of the NASA team.

NASA is still hoping to launch the telescope in 2021, but whether that will be possible depends on how the coronavirus situation unfolds over the next few weeks and how long the suspension of work continues.

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