Saturday, January 22

The ‘golden eye’ of the Hubble Space Telescope has finally opened, clearing the final major hurdle.

Space telescope's 'golden eye' opens, last major hurdle
From NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Project Manager Bill Ochs checks the development of the observatory’s second primary mirror wing as it rotates into position on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. The final section of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror snapped into place at the order of flight controllers, completing the most dangerous element of the mission: unfolding the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA/Bill Ingalls via Associated Press

The final phase in the dramatic unfolding of NASA’s new space telescope was the opening of its massive, gold-plated, flower-shaped mirror on Saturday.

At the instruction of flight controllers, the final section of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror swung into place, completing the unfolding of the James Webb Space Telescope.

“It has an emotional impact on me. What an incredible achievement. We can see that lovely pattern in the sky right now “NASA’s science missions chief, Thomas Zurbuchen, said as much.

The $10 billion Webb Space Telescope, which will be more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, will survey the sky for light streaming from the first stars and galaxies that created 13.7 billion years ago. To do so, NASA had to equip Webb with the largest and most sensitive mirror ever launched—what scientists refer to as its “golden eye.”

Webb is so large that it had to be folded orgami-style to fit into the rocket that launched two weeks ago from South America. The most dangerous operation took place earlier this week, when a tennis court-sized sunshield unfurled, providing subzero shade for the mirror and infrared detectors.

Flight controllers in Baltimore started unfolding the left side of the primary mirror like a drop-leaf table on Friday. On Saturday, the mood was even better, with joyful music filling the control room as the right side was snapped into place. The controllers returned to work immediately after applauding, locking everything down. When the procedure was eventually completed two hours later, they leapt to their feet and cheered.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Commissioning Manager John Durning, left, and engineering teams celebrate as the second primary mirror wing of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope unfolds at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore on Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, before beginning the process of latching the mirror wing into place. The final section of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror swung into place at the order of flight controllers, completing the most dangerous element of the mission: unfolding the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA/Bill Ingalls via Associated Press

On Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore keep an eye on progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into place. The final section of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror swung into place at the order of flight controllers, completing the most dangerous element of the mission: unfolding the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA/Bill Ingalls via Associated Press

On Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, engineering teams at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore celebrate the unfolding of the second primary mirror wing of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope before commencing the process of attaching the mirror wing into place. The final section of the 21-foot (6.5-meter) mirror swung into place at the order of flight controllers, completing the most dangerous element of the mission: unfolding the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA/Bill Ingalls via Associated Press

“We have a spectacular telescope placed on orbit, the likes of which the world has never seen,” Zurbuchen remarked, thanking the team. “So, everyone, how does it feel to make history? You just completed the task.”

Astronomer Antonella Nota of the European Space Agency, who works with him, said the team made things look “so amazingly easy” after years of planning.

“We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time,” she remarked.

The main mirror on Webb’s desk is composed of beryllium, a light but strong and cold-resistant metal. Each of the 18 segments is coated with a very tiny layer of gold that reflects infrared light very well. In the days and weeks ahead, the hexagonal, coffee-table-size parts must be adjusted so that they may gaze as one on stars, galaxies, and extraterrestrial worlds that may contain atmospheric evidence of life.

Webb is expected to arrive at its objective of 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) in two weeks; it has already traveled over 667,000 miles (1 million kilometers) from Earth since its launch on Christmas Day. Science observations will begin this summer if everything goes well. Astronomers expect to gaze back to within 100 million years of the Big Bang’s formation, which is 100 million years closer than Hubble has gotten.