James Webb Telescope resumes plans for sunshield tensioning

JWST has a five-layer, tennis court-sized sunshield that acts like a parasol providing shade
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NASA James Webb Space Telescope flight controllers are expected to begin the sunshield tightening process on the new space observatory today, Jan. 3. At 11:30 am NASA will hold a live webcast updating the event. According to the NASA, ESA, and Canadian Space Agency teams commanding the James Webb Telescope needed to delay the planned sunshield tensioning, a critical step in putting JWST into full operation. The process involved unfolding the telescope from its launch configuration inside the rocket into its full open position, ready to start science operations.

Focus on optimization and learning while delayed

Instead they focused on optimizing Webb’s power systems while learning more about how the observatory behaves in space. As a result, the Webb mission operations team has moved the beginning of sunshield tensioning to no earlier than today. This will ensure Webb is in prime condition to begin the next major deployment step in its unfolding process.  

James Webb five sunshield membrane layers are each as thin as a human hair

Specifically, the team is “analyzing how the power subsystem is operating now that several of the major deployments have been completed. Simultaneously, the deployments team is working to make sure motors that are key to the tensioning process are at the optimal temperatures prior to beginning that operation.”, according to NASA. 

“Nothing we can learn from simulations on the ground is as good as analyzing the observatory when it’s up and running. Now is the time to take the opportunity to learn everything we can about its baseline operations. Then we will take the next steps.”  

Bill Ochs, Webb project manager, based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Webb’s deployment was designed so that the team could pause deployments if necessary. In this case, Ochs said, they are relying on that flexibility in order to properly address how the massive and complex observatory is responding to the environment of space. 

“We’ve spent 20 years on the ground with Webb, designing, developing, and testing. We’ve had a week to see how the observatory actually behaves in space. It’s not uncommon to learn certain characteristics of your spacecraft once you’re in flight. That’s what we’re doing right now.

Mike Menzel, of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Webb’s lead systems engineer

James Webb is thus far successful operationally

So far, the major deployments we’ve executed have gone about as smoothly as we could have hoped for. But we want to take our time and understand everything we can about the observatory before moving forward.”, said Mike Menzel of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  

The timeline for deployments and NASA coverage will be updated as major deployments resume.

The telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory. NASA says that JWST will solve the mysteries of our solar system, looking to distant worlds around other stars, and probing the mysterious structures and origins of our universe. it is an international project led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

This NASA animation shows the tensioning step for the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield to tighten the huge sunshield in place. (Image credit: NASA)

Webb, an international partnership with the ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency, launched Dec. 25 from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. The observatory had been folded up, origami style, to fit inside an Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket for launch. Webb is now in the complex and intricate process of unfolding in space, as it travels nearly 1 million miles to its destination, the second Lagrange point or L2.

Watch the live update here at 11:30am EST on Monday January 3rd

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