Home / Science / News /  How Webb Telescope is to unfold in NASA’s most complex spacecraft plan

NASA says its James Webb Space Telescope will peer deeper into space than ever before to provide new insights about the early universe and the formation of stars, galaxies and planets, among other things.

But first, the tennis-court-size sun-orbiting observatory—now folded up origami-like in the nose of a rocket poised to lift off from French Guiana on Saturday—has to unfold properly after launch.

That won’t be easy.

Opening up the telescope’s golden mirrors, extending its solar panels and unfurling its tissue-thin sunshield will require 50 separate deployments and 178 release mechanisms, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Everything must go just right, or the biggest and most powerful telescope ever sent into space could become a $10 billion heap of space debris.

“Those two weeks after launch are going to be nail-biters," says Amy Lo, deputy director for vehicle engineering on the James Webb Space Telescope for Northrop Grumman Corp., in a video published in October. Mike Menzel, NASA’s Webb mission lead systems engineer, says in the video that unfolding Webb is “hands down, the most complicated spacecraft activity we’ve ever done."

Once the telescope unfolds, thrusters will propel it to its orbital path around the sun about 1 million miles from Earth. That should take about two weeks, with the mission team projecting that about five months will be needed to fine-tune the mirror, calibrate the instruments and let the telescope cool to below minus-370 degrees Fahrenheit.

Construction of the James Webb Space Telescope began in 2004 and involved 40 million hours of work contributed by thousands of scientists in more than a dozen countries, according to NASA.

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