Talk about your unfolding dramas!
Since the successful Christmas Day launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, I and a legion of space weenies have been continually monitoring NASA’s Where is Webb? website for the next critical deployment step. One broken link in the daisy chain of single points of failure will result in a $10 billion piece of space junk floating out of reach 1 million miles from Earth.
So far, so good. Earlier this week, key structural components began to deploy as the expanding observatory skirted past the moon. Webb remains on course after several trajectory tweaks to its reserved parking space at the second Lagrange Point, a location in our solar system where objects tend to stay put.
Perhaps the most critical deployment steps involve the unfolding of five sunshield membranes required to keep Webb’s infrared sensors in a deep freeze. The size of a tennis court, the shades ripped during ground testing. This time, there will be no do-overs, no orbiting repairs of the kind that saved Webb’s predecessor, the Hubble space telescope.
If the tortuous unfolding and tensioning of the sunshades succeeds, secondary and primary mirrors will then deploy, followed by hexagonal mirror “wings” swinging into place, about halfway to Webb’s final destination.
See the full deployment sequence here.
More encouraging news came mid-week when mission managers announced after two mid-course correction maneuvers that the observatory has enough propellant left to operate beyond its 10-year mission lifetime.
If Webb succeeds in running the gauntlet of an estimated 344 single points of failure, its 6.5-meter (21.4 foot) primary mirror will be able to gather enough light and detect enough cosmic radiation to peer back to the earliest stages of the creation of the universe—100 million years after the Big Bang.
Whatever new insights humanity gains will likely raise more questions than provide answers, perhaps even undermining the Big Bang theory.
We won’t know until we look. And Webb will peer farther in distance and further in time than any instrument ever has.
It’s a $10 billion gamble, but space exploration has always been fraught with risks. NASA observes a Day of Remembrance each January to honor the pioneers who died exploring the solar system. (This year’s observance is likely to be delayed by you know what, but later in 2022 a memorial to the crew of Apollo 1 will at last be dedicated.)
About the time those observances would normally have taken place at Arlington National Cemetery in late January, humanity will know one way or the other whether we have a functioning deep space observatory. It is then that we may find out much more from whence we came and where we may be headed.
–George Leopold is the author of Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom. He also writes the EE Times Critical Path and By the Numbers blogs.