America Does Something Right for Once

The sunshield, seen in purple. Illustration: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

Things aren’t going too well here on the ground in the United States. Democrats in the Senate have pivoted away from one landmark bill that may not come together to focus on another landmark bill that has already failed to come together. Hundreds of motorists were snowed in on I-95 in Virginia for almost 24 hours, while days before, hundreds of homes were destroyed in a winter fire in Colorado that swept through the Boulder suburbs. And over 1 million Americans tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday alone.

But in space, things are looking up. On Tuesday, NASA announced that the James Webb Space Telescope, which was launched on Christmas Day, had successfully deployed its 70-foot sunshield, a necessary step in shooting the $10 billion object around 1 million miles away from Earth.

The shield — which is the size of a tennis court and is made up of five mylarlike sheets as thin as a strand of hair — is necessary to protect the telescope’s mirror from the intense rays of the sun as it rockets deep into space, where it will observe extremely distant events in the universe, like the formation of some of the first galaxies. Hillary Stock, a sunshield deployment engineer working on the project, described the feat as “a wonderful moment — there was a lot of joy, a lot of relief.” The sensitive material had ripped in some practice runs.

Launched to replace the Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb is named for the NASA administrator who led the agency at the beginning of the Apollo program and was a collaboration with the European and Canadian space agencies. It is about seven times more sensitive and three times as big as Hubble, which changed the field of astronomy when it was launched over 30 years ago. With this increased power launched much farther than Hubble, (which orbits only a few hundred miles from Earth), astronomers hope to see the traces of some of the earliest stars and galaxies, which could provide clues to the formation of supermassive black holes, as well as smaller, closer exoplanets that may contain the building blocks of life. Once Webb is in orbit around the sun, it could be transmitting images as early as this summer.

America Does Something Right for Once