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James Webb Space Telescope successfully unfurls crucial sunshield

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An illustration depicts the James Webb Space Telescope floating in space after launch and deployment of sun shield and reflective dish. Image courtesy of NASA
An illustration depicts the James Webb Space Telescope floating in space after launch and deployment of sun shield and reflective dish. Image courtesy of NASA

Jan. 1 (UPI) -- A massive sunshield aboard the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope has been successfully unfurled in a crucial step for its operations, NASA says.

The telescope's second, or starboard, sunshield mid-boom was extended late Friday as the observatory "passed another critical deployment milestone," the space agency announced.

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The deployment capped a two-day operation in which all 107 the telescope's crucial membrane release devices were successfully released, thus allowing the sunshield to fully unfurl into its kite-shaped form in space.

Driven by their motors, the mid-booms slowly extended horizontally from the spacecraft, pulling the folded membranes of the sunshield along to their full 47-foot width. The mid-boom arms are now locked in their final position.

"The mid-booms are the sunshield's workhorse and do the heavy lifting to unfold and pull the membranes into that now-iconic shape," Webb observatory manager Keith Parrish said in a statement.

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But, he cautioned, "we still have a long way to go with this whole deployment process," as engineers in the coming days will separate and then individually tighten each of the five sunshield layers to reach their final, taut shape.

Webb is just nine days into a 29-day deployment process in which the telescope will unfold and unfurl at a glacial pace to ensure success.

It's all part of the sophisticated technology that will make Webb the largest and most powerful telescope in history. It will use super-cooled infrared instruments to observe exoplanets, black holes, and galaxies that formed 13.5 billion years ago, the earliest ever seen.

RELATED James Webb telescope to begin sun shield deployment

But those instruments must be so cold -- minus-370 degrees F -- that sunlight or even Webb's own thrusters could cause interference. So the sun shield will wall off the instruments from those heat sources.

The membrane layers are designed with space in between them to allow heat to radiate out, with the largest and flattest layer being closest to the sun.

Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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