NASA's Webb Telescope Checks Another Successful Marker, This Time 500,000 Miles From Earth

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope checked another successful marker off, this time over 500,000 miles from Earth.

On Tuesday, the telescope, a $10 billion project, finished unfolding and tightening a sunshade the size of a tennis court that had to be folded "origami-style" into the nose cone of the Ariane rocket.

After the fifth and final layer of sunshield was tight and secure, ground controllers celebrated, cheering and bumping fists. The sunshield took half the expected time to tighten the layers through the use of motor-driven cables, the process spanning just one-and-a-half days.

The sunshield alone is 70 feet by 46 feet to cast a constant subzero shadow over the infrared, heat-sensing science instruments.

The process was initially delayed after engineers decided Sunday to use more time to check the performance of the telescope's power systems and behaviors, according to CBS News.

"Nothing we can learn from simulations on the ground is as good as analyzing the observatory when it's up and running," said Bill Ochs, the telescope project manager, in a NASA blog post Sunday, CBS News reported. "Now is the time ... to learn everything we can about its baseline operations. Then we will take the next steps."

It had finished unrolling the sunshade on December 31, according to Space.com. The deployment was a meticulous process, where at many points could have ruined the entire mission.

"Webb's sunshield assembly includes 140 release mechanisms, approximately 70 hinge assemblies, eight deployment motors, bearings, springs, gears, about 400 pulleys and 90 cables totaling 1,312 feet [400 m]," said Krystal Puga, a Webb spacecraft systems engineer with Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the mission, in a video about Webb's deployments that NASA posted in October.

webb telescope sun space sun shield
This combination of images from a computer animation made available by NASA in December 2021 depicts the unfolding of the components of the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb is so big that it had to be folded origami-style to fit into the nose cone of the Ariane rocket. Associated Press/NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The telescope is over halfway in its journey of 1 million miles away from Earth, which started when it launched on Christmas day.

The mirrors are next up for release this weekend.

The telescope is the biggest and most powerful observatory ever launched—100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope—enabling it to peer back to almost the beginning of time.

Considered Hubble's successor, Webb will attempt to hunt down light from the universe's first stars and galaxies created 13.7 billion years ago.

"This is a really big moment," Ochs told the control team in Baltimore. "We've still got a lot of work to do, but getting the sunshield out and deployed is really, really big."

Engineers spent years redoing and tweaking the shade. At one point, dozens of fasteners fell off during a vibration test. That made Tuesday's success all the sweeter since nothing like this had ever been attempted before in space.

"First time and we nailed it," engineer Alphonso Stewart told reporters.

Correction (01/05, 3:08 PM): This story originally mistakenly said when the universe's first stars and galaxies were created. It was about 13.7 billion years ago, not 3.7 billion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

James Webb Space Telescope, Sunshield Tightened
The sunshield tightening process was initially delayed after engineers decided Sunday to use more time to check the performance of the telescope’s power systems and behaviors, according to CBS News. In this photo, the James Webb Space Telescope stands in the S5 Payload Preparation Facility (EPCU-S5) at The Guiana Space Centre, Kourou, French Guiana, on November 5, 2021, where it was being tested and verified ahead of a scheduled launch on December 18. Jody Amiet/AFP via Getty Images