Sunny Side Up: James Webb Telescope Passes Sunshield Tests

A delicate sunshield unfolded on a test unit of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope.

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.

Photos: Top 10 Hubble Hotshots of 2014

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.

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"Basically, we do a bit of overtesting to make sure our design has appropriate margin," Arenberg told Discovery News.

The Hubble Telescope has been orbiting the Earth for over two decades and has taken some amazing images in space. It has long overshot its timeline and its operators have expressed confidence that it will last through at least 2020. During its time in orbit, Hubble helped to answer some of the most difficult and intriguing questions about planets, stars and the universe.

The James Webb Telescope is poised to teach us even more.

Webb will fly directly out from our planet in a quest to understand more about the universe's origins: When was the universe clear enough to see light? How did galaxies form? Are there other solar systems like the one hosting our Earth, and how did they come together? But it will take six months to get the telescope ready for its ultimate mission of aiming at the universe.

Photos: Hubble Logs Millionth Observation

A full month will be spent flying out to "L2," a stable gravitational point a million miles (1.5 million kilometers) opposite to the sun's direction. The telescope will unfurl, and engineers will wait for it to cool down so that the instruments can return data without interference from heat on the spacecraft.

There will also be a noteworthy task: combining 18 mirror pieces into a single integrated mirror. If all goes to plan, the telescope should be ready by March or April 2019, Arenberg said.

And we sure can't wait to see what those "first light" pictures will look like.

Shiny! Engineers look at the sunshield layers on this full-sized test unit of the James Webb Space Telescope at a clean room at Northrop Grumman. in Redondo Beach, Calif.

2014 marks the 25th year that the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit -- Hubble will officially turn 25 on April 24, 2015. The veteran observatory has revolutionized our view of the cosmos over the past quarter century where no celestial target is hidden from its unblinking 2.4 meter diameter mirror. From galaxies to galactic clusters and asteroids to exoplanets, Hubble's new imagery always generates huge interest. It is our planet's window to the universe. Like the 24 years that have come before, Hubble's 25th year has been one full of stunning imagery and outstanding science, so let's take a look back over the past 12 months at some of the stand-out moments* from this historic mission. First up is a scene that combined Hubble data with NASA's Chandra X-ray space telescope -- a cosmic 'bloodbath.' In this freeze frame of a particularly violent galactic encounter, a galaxy called ESO 137-001 drifted into the heart of the galactic cluster Abell 3627. Hubble and Chandra had basically witnessed a galactic blender rip ESO 137-001 to shreds.

READ MORE: R-Rated: Space Telescopes Witness Cosmic 'Bloodbath'

*This Top 10 represents a tiny fraction of Hubble's prolific year and was chosen by the Discovery News editorial team and weighed against website traffic. For all of Hubble's mindblowing observations, be sure to browse

and the

Space Telescope Science Institute homepage


After its discovery in 2013 by ground based telescopes, asteroid P/2013 R3 quickly became something of a mystery. It was a space rock, in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, that was slowly breaking apart. It was interesting enough that Hubble mission managers decided to slew the telescope around for a closer look. Sure enough, after watching the pieces of asteroid drift apart, Hubble confirmed that the asteroid hadn't hit anything, only that it had mysteriously broken up. So what happened? Astronomers think that the asteroid was sped up by radiation from the sun, causing it to literally fall apart as the angular momentum flung loosely-bound chunks of asteroid into space.

READ MORE: Hubble Witnesses Mysterious Breakup of Asteroid

It's hard to take your eyes off the delicate spiral structure of this Hubble observation of the center of the galaxy NGC 1433, an active galaxy known as a "Seyfert galaxy." Located around 32 million light-years away, the supermassive black hole in the core of NGC 1433 is voraciously consuming matter, causing the active galactic nucleus to shine bright.

READ MORE: Hubble Examines Galaxy's Throbbing Heart

It's as simple as it is beautiful -- the shadow of Jupiter's moon Ganymede falling right on top of the gas giant's raging Great Red Spot. It's celestial serendipity at its finest!

READ MORE: Eye of the Storm: Jupiter Moon Occults Great Red Spot

This dark cloud may look eerie and foreboding, but it is actually a smorgasbord of stellar phenomena. It is a cocoon of gas and dust that is gradually birthing stars, and the bright reflection nebula (lower left) that is illuminated by a flurry of adolescent stars.

READ MORE: Hubble Spies Dark Nebula of Stellar Creation

While observing galactic superclusters for arcs created by the clusters' immense gravity distorting the light from distant galaxies (a project called Frontier Fields that uses gravitational lensing to superboost Hubble's magnification of distant regions of the universe), astronomers stumbled across this oddity. Looking like a string of pearls on a necklace between two colliding galaxies, it is over 100,000 light years long and is thought to be a short-lived feature that rises from galactic mergers.

READ MORE: Hubble Spies Colliding Galaxies Tied in Stellar Pearls

Wherever Hubble looks, no matter how "empty" a portion of space appears to be, distant galaxies lurk. In this observation, the space telescope peered deep into the outermost reaches of the universe to look at the detail of two primordial galaxies billions of light-years away. Called Zw I 136, the pair (left) don't appear to conform to a well-ordered spiral shape. They are instead gravitationally interacting, pulling at one another's stars.

READ MORE: Hubble Zooms In on 'Galactic Soup' Ingredients

Seeking out distant galaxies is one thing, but trying to track down the presence of exoplanets is quite another. Often lost in the glare of their parent stars, exoplanets can be hard to image. But Hubble has turned into quite the exoplanet hunter. This year, however, Hubble has gone a step further -- surveying stars for their exoplanet forming dusty disks that existed before the alien worlds have even started to form.

READ MORE: Hubble's Star Dust Stunners: Photos

In January this year, a supernova erupted in neighboring galaxy M82 -- the closest supernova to blow in recent history. Soon after the initial flash was reported, plans were afoot for a Hubble observational campaign, resulting in some outstanding imagery of stellar death in our intergalactic back yard.

READ MORE: Hubble Zooms in on Historic Supernova SN 2014J

Yes, it's the Hubble Deep Field... actually, no, it's the Hubble ULTRA Deep Field with an added layer of awesome -- ultraviolet data from some of the youngest and normally obscured stars. By staring deep into a not-particularly-interesting region of space, the HDF became famous for the rich variety of distant galaxies we wouldn't be able to see without the help of Hubble. Now, in 2014, we have a next generation version of the same scene, reminding us just how rich and infinitely beautiful our vast universe really is.

READ MORE: Hubble Adds Ultraviolet to Epic Ultra-Deep Cosmic View