The major components of the James Webb Space Telescope have now been deployed, and it is continuing to make its way to its destination smoothly.
The deployment, completed on Jan. 8, is a significant milestone for the joint NASA, ESA, and CSA Webb mission, as well as for space science in general. The 18-segment primary mirror is the largest mirror ever deployed to space, and it is poised to transform space science by providing an unprecedented perspective of the universe.
"NASA achieved another engineering milestone decades in the making. While the journey is not complete, I join the Webb team in breathing a little easier and imagining the future breakthroughs bound to inspire the world," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said.
In order to complete its astronomy work, the Webb mission team will need to navigate the telescope to its final destination while also getting essential sections of the observatory online.
About 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) from our planet, Webb is projected to arrive at its "insertion point" by Jan. 23, putting it in position to activate its engines and glide to a "parking spot" called Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2 (L2). Thanks to a near-perfect alignment with the sun, Earth, and moon, Webb can use a minimum of fuel to stay in position if it gets to the right zone.
The control teams, however, will not be confined to space moves. Webb still has a long way to go in terms of commissioning, with NASA pointing to the alignment of its mirror and the preparation of its instruments as significant milestones to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.
In a press conference from Webb's control center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, John Durning, Webb's deputy project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told reporters Saturday that team members will spend the next 15 days aligning the 18 mirror segments to "essentially perform as one mirror" as Webb prepares for the engine fire.
When Webb gets at L2, the Fine Guidance Sensor, near-infrared camera, and near-infrared spectrograph will be activated, taking (blurry, because the mirrors haven't been focused) images of star fields to check they're operational.
The mirror will then need to be fine-tuned. This entails instructing 126 incredibly precise actuators hidden behind the gold-coated mirror to slightly flex and bend each segment over the course of several months.
Following that, the calibration process will begin, with the crew once again taking great care to ensure Webb is functioning properly. Finally, Webb should be ready to start science activities in June 2022.