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Astronomers relieved with final Webb telescope deployment milestone

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Artist’s illustration of the fully deployed James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Still cruising toward its operating orbit nearly a million miles from Earth, the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope completed a transformation into its final dimension Saturday with the last of some 50 post-launch deployments, the unfolding of the observatory’s 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror.

Mission controllers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed the starboard, or right-side wing of Webb’s primary mirror had folded into place at 10:28 a.m. EST (1528 GMT) Saturday. The milestone occurred 14 days, 3 hours, and 8 minutes after the mission’s launch Dec. 25 from French Guiana aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket.

A few hours later, ground teams announced the mirror wing had fully latched into place, prompting high-fives, applause, and cheers among the control team in Baltimore, all wearing face masks amid a wave of worldwide coronavirus infections.

“We have a full deployed JWST observatory,” said Paul Reynolds, deployment operations lead from Northrop Grumman, Webb’s primary contractor.

The unfolding of the starboard wing Saturday followed a similar series of events Friday with the port-side mirror wing. Each folding appendage holds three of Webb’s 18 hexagonal primary mirror segments, while 12 of the mirror sections are mounted to the fixed central structure of the telescope.

“Today has been a really remarkable day,” said Bill Ochs, NASA’s Webb project manager, in a press briefing Saturday. “We still have about five-and-a-half months of commissioning left, but the last two weeks have been truly amazing … The success of the last two weeks is truly a tribute to the people of the JWST program. Their diligence and passion for JWST is second to none.”

The mirror deployment capped 14 days of deployments since Webb’s launch, when it was folded up like an origami inside the Ariane 5 payload fairing.

Webb deployed its solar panel moments after separating from its launcher, and then folded open a high-gain antenna to improve communications with ground teams on Earth.

The observatory then deployed two large pallet structures containing the mission’s sunshield, a thermal barrier designed to keep Webb’s mirrors and science instruments at super-cold temperatures, nearly minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

On New Year’s Eve, controllers uplinked commands for Webb to extend two booms from each side of the spacecraft. The booms pulled out the five-layer sunshield like a blanket until it reached its full size, roughly equivalent to the area of a tennis court. The deployment plunged the telescope’s mirrors into permanent darkness, allowing temperatures to begin dropping down to Webb’s operating conditions.

Last week, ground teams monitored the careful tensioning of all five layers of the sunshield. Each membrane, as thin as a human hair, is made of kapton and treated with aluminum to reflect heat.

Webb’s secondary mirror support structure deployed on a tripod-like apparatus Wednesday, Jan. 5, and a radiator opened on the back side of the observatory’s instrument module Thursday, clearing the way for the final primary mirror wing deployments Friday and Saturday.

For many engineers, the unfolding of the Webb observatory was the most complicated series of spacecraft deployments ever attempted.

“There are two unique things about the deployments,” said Mike Menzel, Webb’s mission systems engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “First was the sunshield, and that was deploying large indeterministic foppy structure with a lot of cables, the size of a tennis court, (with) five membranes that could float to places you don’t want them to float … Through our testing and through our design, we controlled that, and the Northrop team did a great job on that.

“The second part of our deployments are what I call precision deployments,” Menzel said. “We’re actually rebuilding and retuning optical infrared telescope remotely, and those deployments had to happen in such that they position the mirrors accurately enough so that our wavefront sensing and control optical engineers can start taking that state where they’re in and tune the telescope.

“So between the fact that we have large, in deterministic deployments like the sunshield, that we have large precision deployments like in the telescope, this has been arguably the most challenging deployment program ever done by NASA,” Menzel said.

The complicated work to transform Webb into its operational configuration has raised anxiety among astronomers for years. But despite Webb’s trouble getting to the launch pad — the mission was delayed more than a decade — the spacecraft has performed near flawlessly in space.

“It is not as easy as it looks,” Ochs said, adding that the smooth operations is a “tribute” to the Webb team back on Earth.

“We went through, what I feel now, is the exact right amount of testing, the exact right amount of engineering audits, the exact right amount of tweaks to the design as we’ve gone through the journey of manufacturing and then launching this telescope,” Ochs said. “The fact that it looked easy just emphasizes that we did all the right things leading up to this moment.”

With the end of Webb’s crucial deployment phase, the mission has exercised 178 non-explosive actuators, or release mechanisms, to allow the observatory to take its final shape in space. There were around 50 major deployment events in total.

The James Webb Space Telescope inside Northrop Grumman’s factory in Redondo Beach, California. Credit: Northrop Grumman

Webb is a joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. NASA provided the spacecraft platform, the telescope mirrors and structure, and led development of one of Webb’s four science instruments.

ESA provided the launch on an Ariane 5 rocket and led work to design and build two of the science instruments, while Canada provided the other science instrument, along with the fine guidance sensor to help precisely lock the observatory onto its astronomical targets.

The mission cost nearly $10 billion to design, build, and test, making Webb the most expensive space science mission in history.

With the sunshield fully unfurled, Webb’s mirrors and science instruments are cooling down to their operating temperatures. They will reach a temperature of around minus 388 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Kelvin) in the coming weeks.

The hardware needs to be chilled down to be able to register the faint infrared light, or heat, emitted from the earliest galaxies in the universe more than 13.5 billion years ago. One of Webb’s primary objectives is to detect and study the first stars and galaxies that formed between 100 million and 200 million years after the Big Bang.

Now that Webb is fully deployed, the pace of work will slow down as optical engineers and instrument scientists prepare the observatory for science operations.

Controllers will switch on each of the instruments for commissioning, and use actuators to gently, and very slowly, nudge the telescope into alignment, allowing the individual segments to behave like a giant single mirror. That will allow scientists to check the telescope’s focus before beginning the operational science mission by the middle of this year, when NASA and its international partners plan to publicly release the first pictures from Webb.

The instruments have been bolted inside Webb’s Integrated Science Instrument Module, or ISIM, for more than seven years as the telescope moved around the country, and then between continents, on the road to launch.

The Near-Infrared Spectrometer, or NIRSpec, and Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, payloads come from Europe. Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, was built in the United States, and the observatory’s Fine Guidance Sensor and Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph are from Canada.

They’re all designed to be sensitive to faint light, or heat energy, from cosmic sources, whereas the famous Hubble Space Telescope, launched nearly 32 years ago, sees the universe in visible and ultraviolet wavelengths.

The primary mirror consists of 18 hexagonal beryllium mirror segments, each 4.3 feet (1.3 meters) in width, precisely polished to specifications for operations at super-cold, cryogenic temperatures. The mirrors are covered in a thin coating of gold, which is highly reflective of infrared light, the section of the spectrum Webb is tuned to see.

The 18 mirror segments are coated with about a tenth of a pound (48 grams) of pure gold, about the mass of a golf ball.

While ground teams work to align Webb’s mirrors, the observatory will continue coasting through deep space reach its final orbit around the L2 Lagrange point, a gravitational balance location four times farther from Earth than the moon’s orbit.

A burn using two of Webb’s small rocket engines is planned Jan. 23 to nudge the spacecraft into its halo-like orbit around L2.

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Weather delays set up SpaceX for two weekend launches from Cape Canaveral

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A Falcon 9 rocket stands on pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station Friday evening with Italy’s CSG 2 radar satellite. Credit: SpaceX

A blanket of thick clouds over Cape Canaveral Friday forced SpaceX to delay liftoff of a Falcon 9 rocket and an Italian radar remote sensing satellite until Saturday, setting up Florida’s Space Coast for launches on back to back days this weekend, with another SpaceX flight already booked on the range for Sunday.

SpaceX’s planned launch of Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed radar surveillance satellite was originally scheduled Thursday, but rain showers, low visibility, and thick clouds caused officials to call off the launch attempt before loading propellants into the Falcon 9 rocket.

Conditions at Cape Canaveral improved Friday, but a blanket of thick clouds remained in place over the spaceport. SpaceX scrubbed the launch with fewer than 10 minutes left in the countdown.

SpaceX will try again at 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) Saturday. The Falcon 9 rocket will fly south from Cape Canaveral’s Complex 40 launch pad over the Atlantic Ocean, tracking parallel to Florida’s east coast, then over the Straits of Florida, Cuba, and the Caribbean Sea to place the Italian radar imaging satellite into a polar orbit.

The reusable first stage booster, flying for the third time, will return to Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral for a propulsive touchdown.

Meanwhile, SpaceX technicians a few miles to the north of pad 40 at Kennedy Space Center prepared late Friday to roll another Falcon 9 rocket out to pad 39A. That rocket is scheduled to take off at 2:39 p.m. EST (1939 GMT) Sunday with another batch of 49 satellites for SpaceX’s Starlink internet network.

A backup launch opportunity is available for the Starlink mission at 5:56 p.m. EST (2256 GMT) Sunday).

The target launch times are separated by 20 hours, 28 minutes, which would mark the shortest span between two orbital departures from Florida’s Space Coast since 1967.

As with all rocket launches, SpaceX will only pull off the feat if weather and technology cooperate.

There’s an 80% chance of good weather Saturday evening for SpaceX’s rescheduled launch of an Italian COSMO-SkyMed radar satellite, with a moderate risk of unfavorable winds aloft, according to the U.S. Space Force’s 45th Weather Squadron.

For Sunday’s mission, forecasters expect a 90% chance of acceptable launch weather on the Space Coast. There’s a moderate risk of out-of-limits wind and sea conditions downrange at the booster’s offshore landing zone near the Bahamas.

The primary weather concern Saturday evening is ground winds, which are forecast to be gusting from the northwest to near 25 mph following the arrival of a strong cold front, causing temperatures to drop to around 45 degrees Fahrenheit by launch time.

On Sunday, the only slight weather issue is with cumulus clouds, which could contribute to a lightning risk as the Falcon 9 climbs through the atmosphere.

SpaceX is slated to follow the launches this weekend with another Falcon 9 flight from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California on Wednesday, Feb. 2. The Falcon 9 rocket set for launch from California will carry a classified payload into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

SpaceX has already launched three Falcon 9 missions since the start of the year, and is on pace to complete six Falcon 9 launches in less than four weeks, assuming the next three flights occur as scheduled.

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Live coverage: SpaceX counting down to launch of Italian radar satellite

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Live coverage of the countdown and launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. The mission will launch a radar remote sensing satellite for Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation constellation. Follow us on Twitter.

SFN Live



SpaceX Webcast

SpaceX is set to launch an Italian radar remote sensing satellite aboard a Falcon 9 rocket Thursday from Cape Canaveral. The Falcon 9 is scheduled to launch at 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT), weather permitting, and the first stage booster will return to Florida’s Space Coast eight minutes later for landing.

The mission will deploy a COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation, or CSG, radar surveillance satellite into a polar orbit for the Italian Space Agency and the Italian Ministry of Defense. There’s a 60% chance of good weather for launch at Cape Canaveral Thursday evening. The primary concerns are with ground winds and cumulus clouds.

The Falcon 9 rocket will be powered by a first stage booster modified from two previous missions as a side booster on SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket. Both halves of the rocket’s payload shroud have flown to space three times on prior Falcon 9 missions.

Our live coverage will be available on this page beginning at 5 p.m. EST (2200 GMT).

The COSMO-SkyMed satellites provide regular day-and-night radar imaging of locations around the world for the civilian and military users. The Italian government oversees the radar constellation, which consists of four first-generation satellites now beyond their operating lifetimes, and the first in a new generation of COSMO-SkyMed spacecraft that launched in December 2019 on a Russian Soyuz rocket from French Guiana.

The radar imaging constellation gathers data for use by the Italian military, which employs the imagery to track maritime traffic in the Mediterranean Sea. Civilian applications include disaster response, agriculture monitoring, and climate change research.

This mission will mark the fifth launch from Cape Canaveral this year, following three SpaceX flights and a United Launch Alliance mission earlier this month.

Read our mission preview story for details.

ROCKET: Falcon 9 (B1052.3)

PAYLOAD: COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation FM2

LAUNCH SITE: SLC-40, Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH DATE: Jan. 27, 2022

LAUNCH TIME: 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT)

LAUNCH WINDOW: Instantaneous

WEATHER FORECAST: 60% probability of acceptable weather

BOOSTER RECOVERY: Landing Zone 1 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida

LAUNCH AZIMUTH: South-southeast, then south

TARGET ORBIT: Approximately 384 miles (619 kilometers), 97.9 degrees inclination

LAUNCH TIMELINE:

  • T+00:00: Liftoff
  • T+01:12: Maximum aerodynamic pressure (Max-Q)
  • T+02:15: First stage main engine cutoff (MECO)
  • T+02:19: Stage separation
  • T+02:27: Second stage engine ignition
  • T+02:32: Boost-back burn begins (three engines)
  • T+03:20: Boost-back burn ends
  • T+03:45: Fairing jettison
  • T+06:11: First stage entry burn begins (three engines)
  • T+06:32: First stage entry burn ends
  • T+07:22: First stage landing burn begins
  • T+07:26: First stage landing
  • T+08:44: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 1)
  • T+56:01: Second stage engine restart
  • T+56:04: Second stage engine cutoff (SECO 2)
  • T+1:00:05: COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation FM2 separation

MISSION STATS:

  • 138th launch of a Falcon 9 rocket since 2010
  • 146th launch of Falcon rocket family since 2006
  • 3rd launch of Falcon 9 booster B1052
  • 122nd Falcon 9 launch from Florida’s Space Coast
  • 79th Falcon 9 launch from pad 40
  • 134th launch overall from pad 40
  • 82nd flight of a reused Falcon 9 booster
  • 80th Thales Alenia Space-built satellite launched by SpaceX
  • 1st SpaceX mission for Italian Space Agency
  • 4th Falcon 9 launch of 2022
  • 4th launch by SpaceX in 2022
  • 5th orbital launch based out of Cape Canaveral in 2022

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SpaceX gives converted Falcon Heavy side booster new life

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A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with a booster stage converted from two previous Falcon Heavy missions, rolls through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on Dec. 8 toward its launch pad. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

A converted SpaceX side booster that flew on two Falcon Heavy missions in 2019 will launch again Thursday as the first stage of a single-stick Falcon 9 rocket set to lift off from Cape Canaveral with an Italian radar imaging satellite.

Liftoff is set for 6:11 p.m. EST (2311 GMT) Thursday from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida with a COSMO-SkyMed Second Generation radar surveillance satellite for the Italian government.

The first stage booster assigned to the Falcon 9 mission mission is designated B1052 in SpaceX’s fleet. Tracking booster assignments for SpaceX launches has become a pastime for space enthusiasts. But with SpaceX’s rocket reuse program becoming more routine, the first stage used on most Falcon flights has become an afterthought, unless it’s setting a new record.

But the booster awaiting launch Thursday is noteworthy. The 15-story-tall rocket stage was previously fitted with an aerodynamic nose cone and attachment fixtures when it flew as a side booster mounted to the side of a Falcon Heavy core stage on two missions in 2019.

SpaceX created the Falcon Heavy by connecting three modified Falcon 9 booster stages together, tripling the rocket’s total power at liftoff. Each Falcon booster generates 1.7 million pounds of thrust from its nine Merlin engines, giving the Falcon Heavy more than 5 million pounds of thrust, more than any other launch vehicle currently in operation.

A Falcon Heavy rocket, with B1052 as a side booster, launched April 12, 2019, with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite. Credit: Walter Scriptunas II / Spaceflight Now

The Falcon Heavy rocket has flown three times, most recently with the Arabsat 6A communications satellite in April 2019 and the U.S. military’s Space Test Program-2 rideshare mission in June 2019. Both missions flew with Booster No. 1052 as a strap-on rocket stage.

The STP-2 mission flew with the same pair of side boosters as Arabsat 6A. On both missions, the side boosters fired more than two minutes during the climb into space, then returned to SpaceX’s rocket recovery zones at Cape Canaveral for nearly simultaneous landings.

SpaceX attempted to recover the Falcon Heavy core stages on both missions aboard a downrange landing platform in the Atlantic Ocean. But both cores were lost, as was the center stage on the first Falcon Heavy demonstration launch in February 2018.

The first Falcon Heavy rocket launched with a pair of side boosters that previously flew as the first stages on Falcon 9 rockets. SpaceX modified the boosters for the Falcon Heavy mission, and they landed back at Cape Canaveral and never flew again.

SpaceX officials have said Falcon Heavy side boosters and Falcon 9 first stages are interchangeable, but Falcon Heavy core stages carry additional structural stiffeners to support the load of two side-mounted boosters. That makes each center core specifically built for the Falcon Heavy.

The launch Thursday with Italy’s COSMO-SkyMed radar satellite will be the first time SpaceX has flown a rocket converted in the other direction, from a Falcon Heavy to a Falcon 9. SpaceX’s ground team removed the former side booster’s nose cone and other unique hardware for its new role in the Falcon 9 fleet.

Two reusable rocket boosters, including B1052, land at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station after the successful launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket with the Arabsat 6A satellite April 12, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo by James Rainier)

Photographers at the Kennedy Space Center’s press site first spotted the converted Falcon first stage Dec. 8 as it passed through the spaceport from SpaceX’s rocket processing hangar on the way to one of the company’s seaside launch pads.

The sighting of the booster’s serial number — the No. 52 is painted in small print on the side of the airframe — suggested SpaceX had modified the former Falcon Heavy side booster for use as a Falcon 9 first stage.

But it wasn’t clear which mission would use the booster until SpaceX confirmed the assignment of B1052 to the COSMO-SkyMed satellite’s launch in a posting to the company’s website Thursday, just hours before the scheduled liftoff time.

Like its previous two flights, the booster will fire for more than two minutes before shutting down its Merlin engines and flipping around to fly back to Cape Canaveral. Touchdown on Landing Zone 1, located about 6 miles (9 kilometers) south of the Complex 40 launch pad, is expected nearly eight minutes after liftoff.

The Falcon 9 rocket’s second stage — brand new as it is for all Falcon missions — will direct the COSMO-SkyMed satellite along a southerly trajectory parallel to Florida’s east coast, targeting an orbit that takes the spacecraft over Earth’s poles.

It will be SpaceX’s second launch into polar orbit from Cape Canaveral this month, following a corridor that was unused from 1969 until 2020. Most polar orbit launches from the United States take off from Vandenberg Space Force Base, which offers a clear range over the Pacific Ocean to the south, without requiring a rocket to perform a steering maneuver after liftoff to fly around land masses.

SpaceX Booster No. 1052 rolls through NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on the way to its launch pad Dec. 8. Credit: Michael Cain / Spaceflight Now / Coldlife Photography

The official launch weather forecast for Thursday evening calls for a 60% chance of favorable conditions for liftoff at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The primary weather concerns are with ground winds and cumulus clouds.

The COSMO-SkyMed continues a busy month at Cape Canaveral, which has already hosted four rocket launches since Jan. 6, including three by SpaceX. Another SpaceX launch is scheduled Saturday from pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, when a Falcon 9 rocket is set to deliver another batch of Starlink internet satellites into orbit.

SpaceX will continue its rapid-fire launch cadence Feb. 2 with a Falcon 9 mission from Vandenberg for the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency.

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