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James Webb telescope completes major deployment

By Paul Brinkmann & Simon Druker
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James Webb telescope completes major deployment
Engineering teams at NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center in Baltimore monitor progress as the observatory's second primary mirror wing rotates into position, on Saturday. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

ORLANDO, Fla., Jan. 8 (UPI) -- NASA's James Webb ​​Telescope completed the complex major deployment of its giant golden mirrors Saturday, a move the space agency called "its next biggest milestone."

"The mirrors have completed deployment and the next-generation telescope has taken its final form," NASA mission controllers wrote on Twitter.

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The space agency provided live commentary and updates on social media as the honeycomb-shaped mirrors unfolded approximately 700,000 miles from Earth.

The mirror-unfolding process took approximately 5 minutes, but locking it in place took more than 2 hours.

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The $10 billion observatory was launched Dec. 25 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana and is now on the 14th day of its million-mile journey.

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Saturday marked the most significant preparations to use the telescope -- unfolding shields, mirrors, radiators and sensors.

The mirror is 21 feet, 4 inches across and made of beryllium coated with reflective gold. It is the shape and size that scientists determined was needed to measure infrared light from the earliest galaxies.

That huge instrument could never fit on top of the world's available rockets, so it had to be folded for final assembly in space. Two wings of the mirror were folded, the first of which unfolded on Friday, NASA said.

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"Next up for Webb? Five months of alignment and calibration before we start getting images," wrote NASA on Twitter.

That work includes settling into a stable operating temperature, aligning the mirrors, and calibrating onboard science instruments.

"The remaining work we have to do is to precisely align each of the mirror's 18 hexagonal segments," Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist, told UPI in an interview.

"Nothing like this has ever been done in space before. We are confident, but there are still critical steps to ensure that you can get the sharp images and sharp data. To retire most of the risk of deployment like this, the relief is huge. We're looking forward to the moment we can turn on the instruments and start to see light on the detectors, even if it's completely unfocused light at first."

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Most of the deployment has occurred as scheduled, with the exception of one day of delay while teams took a needed break and tweaked systems on the spacecraft to adjust to conditions in space, said Scott Friedman, Webb commissioning scientist.

Exactly when the public will see Webb's first images isn't known yet, or even what they will show.

"It's definitely a secret, because the images need to be authenticated, and everyone is hoping for a big surprise. We expect to be surprised," said Friedman.

Friedman, who works for the non-profit Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland, said he hopes Webb inspires a surge of interest in astronomy just as Hubble did when it launched in 1990 and sent back its first quality images.

But Webb's more sensitive instruments will penetrate the gas and dust of space objects that have limited Hubble's vision at times.

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Such targets will include galaxies, supermassive black holes, nebulae, pulsars and exoplanets. Scientists anticipate Webb will help them identify the makeup of atmospheres around planets in distant solar systems.

"We are going to see things we've never seen, even for objects that we know are there, let alone things that we have yet to discover," Friedman said.

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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