Significant progress was made in the development of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – also known as JWST or simply the Webb – last month, February 2021, marking the success of its final functional performance tests.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s most complex infrared telescope. In February 2021, It successfully passed its final functional performance tests, moving it closer to its launch in October.

Significant progress was made in the development of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope – also known as JWST or simply the Webb – last month, February 2021, marking the success of its final functional performance tests. The two testing milestones – the comprehensive systems test and the ground segment test – confirmed the observatory’s internal electronics are operating as intended. They also verified that it and its four science instruments can send and receive data, moving it closer to its planned launch in October.

The comprehensive systems test took place at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, the industrial partner in the Webb project. Specifically, this test established a baseline of electrical functional performance for the entire observatory and all of the many components that work together in its composition. In other words, it’s the electrical version of the mechanical testing that successfully completed in October 2020. The ground segment test, however, was completed in collaboration with test engineers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, the institute that will operate the telescope after launch. That test was designed to simulate the complete process from planning science observations to posting the scientific data to the community archive. Jennifer Love-Pruitt, the Webb’s electrical vehicle engineering lead, said in a NASA statement:

It’s been amazing to witness the level of expertise, commitment and collaboration across the team during this important milestone. It’s definitely a proud moment because we demonstrated Webb’s electrical readiness. The successful completion of this test also means we are ready to move forward toward launch and on-orbit operations.

NASA is targeting October 31, 2021, for the launch of the Webb telescope. The telescope will ride to orbit on an Ariane 5 rocket from the ELA-3 launch site at the European Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana. Once it lifts off, the massive observatory will make its way to Lagrange Point 2, a gravitationally stable point 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) from our planet. The Webb will then deploy its sunshield and begin studying the cosmos in infrared light using its dazzling mirror.

Development began in 1996 for a launch that was initially planned for 2007 and a $500 million budget. But the project has had considerable delays and cost overruns, and underwent a major redesign in 2005. Afterwards, the launch was planned for March 2020, but the ongoing coronavirus pandemic also caused major setbacks. Yet now, significant progress has been made, and existing program funding will have the Webb finished within its current $8.8 billion cost cap, NASA says. In December 2020, the sunshield of a fully assembled James Webb Space Telescope successfully completed its own final tests, including a complete unfolding, just as the telescope will need to do once in space.

Formerly known as the Next Generation Space Telescope, the Webb was renamed in September 2002 after James Webb, who was an esteemed former NASA administrator. The entire project is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the development effort, while Northrop Grumman serves as the project’s main industrial partner. As it did for the Hubble Space Telescope, the Space Telescope Science Institute will be operating the Webb telescope after launch.

One of the Webb’s most important and identifiable attributes is its golden 21-foot-wide (6.5-meter-wide) primary mirror. A reflecting telescope’s primary mirror determines how much light it can collect, and thus how deeply it can see into the universe. Webb’s mirror is nearly three times wider than Hubble’s primary mirror. It’s composed of 18 separate hexagonal-shaped segments made of ultra-lightweight beryllium, which will unfold after launch.

The Webb’s biggest feature, however, is its tennis court-sized sunshield, designed to reduce the sun’s heat by more than a million times, to -364 degrees F (-220 degrees C). The purpose of the sunshield is to keep the mirror and instrumentation cold. If it were to be heated up by the sun, it would give off its own infrared radiation and drown out the faint infrared signals from the distant galaxies it’s meant to measure.

The Webb is equipped with four cameras and spectrometers with detectors able to record extremely faint signals. One of these, the Near InfraRed Spectrograph has programmable “microshutters” that let it observe up to 100 objects at the same time. The detectors of one of the other instruments require even colder temperatures to function than the sunshield can provide, so a cryocooler keeps it at around -447 Fahrenheit (7 kelvin or -266 degrees C).

The Webb will be the largest, most powerful and most complex infrared telescope ever built. Thousands of astronomers worldwide will use it for a wide range of research projects, complementing and extending the discoveries of the magnificent Hubble Space Telescope, as well as the now-decommissioned Spitzer infrared space telescope. Once in space, above Earth’s obscuring atmosphere, the Webb will provide unobstructed views of the near and distant cosmos. Since light has a finite speed (186,000 miles per second, or 300,000 km per second), the new space telescope will also provide insights into our universe’s past: from the first light after the Big Bang, to the formation and evolution of galaxies, to our own and other planetary systems.

Thus, the Webb will be used for study of every phase in the history of our universe.

22 artists were selected nationwide to attend the James Webb Space Telescope Artist Event at NASA Goddard. They sat directly in front of the Webb telescope and were briefed on the mission by scientists, engineers and other project personnel while they worked; sketching, painting, writing, sewing, playing music. Visit this gallery to see their astonishing impressions of the Webb and its mission.

Bottom line: The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s largest, most powerful, and most complex infrared telescope, built for astrophysical studies of the most distant universe. Two final testing milestones confirmed that the observatory’s electronics and science instruments are operating as intended, moving the telescope closer to being ready for launch in October.


Originally Published at EarthSky