The James Webb Telescope, the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is a critical step closer to its readiness for launch.
Engineers successfully unfurled the telescope's sunshield this week. In tests earlier this month with a test unit of the stargazer (which will launch in 2018), officials were pleased to see the membranes unfolding smoothly even though they have to drag against each other to unfold.
This second successful test (which uses hardware closer to the real deal than the also-successful first shot in 2014) bodes well for the telescope -- but it's just one in a long road to get the NASA telescope ready for its journey around the sun.
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This week or early next, the flight backplane will be shipped from Northrop Grumman in California to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Mirrors and instruments will be added by early 2016, and then begins testing with the new assembly, said Jonathan Arenberg, chief engineer for Northrop Grumman (NASA's lead industrial partner for the telescope.)
After that comes another flight to Houston's Johnson Space Center in late 2016 for testing in an airless chamber, plus adding in all the "stuff" that makes it a telescope: electronics, tanks, propulsion and the like.
By early 2017, James Webb will be ready for its last few tests before launch in October 2018, aboard an Ariane 5 rocket in French Guiana.
But the engineers are taking a more delicate hand with James Webb than with the test unit, which is stressed just a little beyond what engineers expect the telescope will have to endure in space.