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James Webb Space Telescope latest: Alien-hunting spacecraft unfurls on its way to study the universe

Andrew Griffin
Friday 31 December 2021 08:53
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Nasa’s James Webb Space Telescope is on its way further into space – to look deeper into the universe than ever before.

After decades of delays and issues, the telescope had a much more successful Christmas Day launch than expected, and will go on to study the cosmos for years, Nasa said.

Before it does, it must find its position in space, at a location known as L2, hovering in a precise gravitational position that will allow it to study space.

On its way, it will continue to unfurl the precise scientific instruments that will allow it to peer deep into the beginnings of the universe, look for other potentially habitable planets, and much more besides.

Follow for the latest updates as the telescope makes its journey.

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‘Huge day’ to come for Webb

Here, the ESA’s Mark McCaughrean lays out why today is so important for the space telescope’s unfurling:

Andrew Griffin31 December 2021 08:53
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Where is Webb? Nasa provides live tracker

Nasa has a special page, named “Where is Webb?”, on which you can track the progress of the space telescope as it moves through space and unfurls. It also includes other interesting information like just how hot and cold it is.

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 21:08
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What is the James Webb telescope and why is it so important?

Here’s everything you might want to know about what the telescope is actually doing, and why everyone is so excited.

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 19:08
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Nasa provides new details on timings and updates

The space agency has said that for the next two weeks or so it will be providing live coverage of what is going on with the space telescope. While it does note that the processes are controlled by humans and the timeline has flexibility to change, here’s a rough schedule of what it expects to happen:

  • Sunshield tensioning: The full deployment of the sunshield, the most challenging element for Webb, will mark a critical milestone for the mission. This step is scheduled for completion about eight days after launch, no earlier than Sunday, Jan. 2.
  • Secondary mirror support structure deployment: The support structure that holds the secondary mirror in position to focus light collected by the primary mirror is set for deployment about 10 days after launch, no earlier than Tuesday, Jan. 4.
  • Webb deployments complete: With the unfolding of the second of Webb’s primary mirror wings, the Webb team will have completed all observatory deployments. This is scheduled to take place about 13 days after launch, no earlier than Friday, Jan. 7.

It will provide more information on times and dates as they appear.

It also says it will provide a new and bigger update when the final deployments are over.

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 17:46
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When will everything start to happen?

The telescope is focusing on the early and important bits of its work for the moment: unfurling and travelling through space. But there’s a lot more to be done before it actually starts telling us about the universe.

First, it has to reach “L2”, the balanced point in space orbit where it will be able to get to work. Then its engineers will start testing and configuring the variety of precise and technical equipment that will be used for observations.

By June 2022, that should all be done. That’s when we should start getting images back.

Of course, actually understanding the importance of those images is something that might take years – or much longer – to complete. Spacecraft such as the Voyager probes and Hubble Space Telescope have been travelling through space for decades, and continue to provide important information.

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 17:24
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Another piece of Webb unfolds

Nasa says Webb has deployed the momentum flap at the back of the telescope, which helps keep it stable:

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 17:10
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Footage shows Webb detaching from its rocket

Here’s some footage from the launch, on Christmas Day, where you can see the space telescope separating from its rocket and unfolding its solar panel:

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 17:10
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Footage shows Webb detaching from its rocket

Here’s some footage from the launch, on Christmas Day, where you can see the space telescope separating from its rocket and unfolding its solar panel:

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 17:10
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Watch Webb as it flees Earth

Here’s a lovely video, made up of ten images, through which you can see Webb as it flies away from Earth.

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 14:51
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Nasa offers natty way to follow deployment

The complex process of deployment that will allow the telescope to look into the universe takes days, and is made up of a whole host of steps. Helpfully, Nasa has put together a clever website where you can scroll through each of those steps, watch them happen, and learn about how they contribute to the broader mission.

Andrew Griffin30 December 2021 14:48

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