NASA’s Webb Telescope Packs Its Tennis Court-Sized Sunshield for a Million Mile Journey

Lifting James Webb Space Telescope's Sunshield

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Both sides of the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield were raised vertically in preparation for the folding of the sunshield layers. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

Engineers dealing with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have actually effectively folded and loaded its sunshield for its upcoming million-mile (approximately 1.5 million kilometer) journey, which starts later on this year.

The sunshield — a five-layer, diamond-shaped structure the size of a tennis court — was specifically crafted to fold around the 2 sides of the telescope and fit within the boundaries of its launch automobile, the Ariane 5 rocket. Now that folding has actually been finished at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, the sunshield will stay in this compact type through launch and the very first couple of days the observatory will invest in area.

Designed to safeguard the telescope’s optics from any heat sources that might hinder its sight, the sunshield is among Webb’s most crucial and complicated elements. Because Webb is an infrared telescope, its mirrors and sensing units require to be kept at very cold temperature levels to find faint heat signals from far-off items in deep space.

In area, one side of the sunshield will constantly show light and background heat from the Sun, Earth and Moon. Thermal designs reveal that the optimum temperature level of the outer layer is 383 Kelvin, or about 230 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, the opposite of the sunshield will constantly deal with deep area, with the coldest layer having actually a designed minimum temperature level of 36 Kelvin, or about minus 394 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fully released, the telescope’s sunshield procedures nearly 70 feet by 47 feet (21 meters by 14 meters). When stowed inside the rocket for launch, the folded sunshield will be packaged in a really restricted location in between other structures of the observatory to accommodate the minimal area inside the 18-foot (5.4-meter) size rocket fairing.

James Webb Space Telescope Sunshield Folding

During the sunshield folding procedure for the James Webb Space Telescope, a group of service technicians thoroughly fold each layer in a zigzag pattern to produce accordion-like stacks of membranes on either side of the telescope. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

“There is nothing really analogous to what we are trying to achieve with the folding up of a tennis court-sized sunshield, but it is similar to packing a parachute,” stated Jeff Cheezum, a lead sunshield style engineer at Northrop Grumman. “Just like a skydiver needs their parachute packed correctly in order to open perfectly and to successfully get back to Earth, Webb needs its sunshield to be perfectly stowed to ensure that it also opens up perfectly and maintains its shape, in order to successfully keep the telescope at its required operating temperature.”

The month-long procedure of folding the sunshield started with laying the 5 layers as flat as possible. In its released state, the sunshield looks like a multilayered silver ship, so its naturally curved surface areas included a degree of intricacy to this action. Afterwards, the layers were raised vertically and propped onto unique assistance devices so that they might be correctly limited for folding. A group of service technicians then thoroughly folded each layer in a zigzag pattern to produce accordion-like stacks of membranes on either side of the telescope.

The very first layer of the sunshield is two-thousandths of an inch (0.005 centimeters) thick, while the other 4 layers are just one-thousandth of an inch thick. For the group, an integrated difficulty was the special of folding such thin layers. The folding procedure likewise needed to represent elements such as the sunshield’s 90 various tensioning cable televisions, which should be stowed in a particular way to make sure the sunshield releases efficiently.

James Webb Space Telescope's Final Tests

The James Webb Space Telescope’s last sunshield release and tensioning tests were finished in December 2020. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

With the effective conclusion of sunshield folding, the engineering group has actually prepared the sunshield for its complicated release in area. The sunshield will unfold at the end of the telescope’s very first week in area after launch, extending to its complete size and after that separating and tensioning each of its 5 layers. Testing for this unfolding and tensioning treatment was finished for the last time on Earth in December 2020.

“Think of it backwards; we want the deployed sunshield to achieve a specific shape so we get the performance we need. The whole folding process was designed with that in mind. We have to fold cleanly and carefully the same way each time, to ensure the unfolding occurs exactly the way we want it,” stated James Cooper, lead sunshield engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

For circumstances, among the most elaborate elements of the folding procedure included lining up the membrane stacks. Each of the sunshield’s layers has numerous deliberate holes, which are intentionally set up to prevent light and heat from passing to the optical components of the telescope when the sunshield is completely released. These holes should be lined up throughout folding so that Webb service technicians can place “pins” through the holes in each membrane stack. The 107 “pins,” or membrane release gadgets, will assist limit the layers for launch, however release to unfold the sunshield once the telescope remains in area.

James Webb Space Telescope Deployed Primary Mirror

The James Webb Space Telescope formerly released its main mirror in March 2020. Its folded sunshield is likewise noticeable in this image. Credit: Northrop Grumman

“It’s a very methodical process that we use to make sure everything is aligned correctly,” stated Marc Roth, mechanical engineering lead at Northrop Grumman. “Our team has been through multiple training cycles, and we’ve implemented many lessons learned from the previous times we’ve done this process, all culminating in this last sunshield fold.”

Over the next 3 months, engineers and service technicians will end up stowing and protecting the jam-packed sunshield. This procedure will include setting up the membrane release gadgets, rigging and protecting all of the sunshield cable televisions, and stowing covers for the sunshield membranes. It will likewise consist of stowing the 2 “arms” of the sunshield — the Mid-Boom Assemblies — which will horizontally extend the sunshield outwards throughout release, along with stowing the 2 pallet structures that hold the sunshield in location.

The observatory will furthermore go through a last mirror release prior to it is delivered to its launch website in French Guiana, South America.

The Webb engineering group continues to follow individual security treatments in accordance with existing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration assistance associated to COVID-19, consisting of mask-wearing and social distancing.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s leading area science observatory when it introduces in 2021. Webb will resolve secrets in our planetary system, look beyond to far-off worlds around other stars, and probe the mystical structures and origins of our universe and our location in it. Webb is a global program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.

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