NASA’s massive James Webb telescope is folded down to launch size for first time

NASA’S James Webb Space Telescope has achieved a milestone in preparations for its upcoming launch, despite work on the project being limited due to the coronavirus pandemic. The entire telescope has been folded down and stowed into the configuration that will be used for its launch, currently scheduled for next year.

The telescope includes a massive origami mirror which folds out to be 6.5 meters (over 21 feet) across, but has to fold down small enough to fit inside a rocket payload fairing so it can be launched into orbit. It also has a tennis court-sized sunshield that needs to be folded and stowed to fit in the limited space in the fairing.

Visualization of the James Webb Space Telescope folding up to be stowed inside an Ariane V rocket. NASA

With such large and delicate components needing to be stowed, getting them to fold down correctly is a big step in preparing the telescope for its eventual launch.

“The James Webb Space Telescope achieved another significant milestone with the entire observatory in its launch configuration for the first time, in preparation for environmental testing,” Bill Ochs, Webb project manager for NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

“I am very proud of the entire Northrop Grumman and NASA integration and test team. This accomplishment demonstrates the outstanding dedication and diligence of the team in such trying times due to COVID-19.”

first look at NASA's James Webb Space Telescope fully stowed
A first look at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope fully stowed into the same configuration it will have when loaded into an Ariane V rocket for launch. The image was taken from a webcam in the clean room at Northrop Grumman, in Redondo Beach, California. With staffing restrictions in place due to COVID-19, only essential staff are allowed in the clean room. Northrop Grumman

With the global pandemic of the coronavirus, NASA employees are working from home and many projects have had to be suspended, including the announcement that integration and testing operations on the James Webb would be suspended. But NASA says that progress is still being made on the telescope, albeit with a reduced team.

“While operating under augmented personal safety measures because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), the project continues to make good progress and achieve significant milestones in preparation for upcoming environmental testing,” Gregory L. Robinson, the Webb program director at NASA Headquarters said in the statement.

“Team member safety continues to be our highest priority as the project takes precautions to protect Webb’s hardware and continue with integration and testing. NASA will continually assess the project’s schedule and adjust decisions as the situation evolves.”

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