Just like honey

Watch as NASA's James Webb Telescope deploys its massive, honeycomb-shaped mirror

NASA released a video this week that shows the final test deployment of the James Webb Telescope gigantic mirror, which stretches across 21 feet and 4 inches.

NASA’s James Webb Telescope is designed to peer back in time across the universe, observing distant galaxies that are over 13 billion light years away.

But to get a glimpse, the telescope needs a pretty massive mirror capable of revealing the cosmos in great detail. And now, you too can see it in all its golden, shimmery glory before it heads into space.

The telescope’s 21 feet-wide, 4-inch-thick mirror was unfurled in a video released by NASA this week.

When fully deployed on the telescope, it appeared like a great, golden, reflective honeycomb.

While beautiful, the video also demonstrates one of the critical, final tests that the James Webb Telescope has to undergo at the Northrop Grumman Space Systems in Redondo Beach, California. Once it passes these tests, it will be packaged up, and shipped to French Guiana for launch onboard an Ariane space rocket.

In the video, the telescope’s primary mirror is deployed to the same position that it will have when floating through space.

Reflective hexagons — The large mirror is needed to reflect light from objects in space. Doing this essentially amplifies the light, enabling the telescope's instruments to better pick up on what it is seeing. But the James Webb Telescope requires a mirror so large, that it is too large to fit into the Ariane 5 rocket.

A mirror this large has never been launched into space, so the team of engineers behind the telescope had to get creative.

In order to fly the telescope into orbit, the mirror must be tucked away during the ride to space. The James Webb Telescope mirror was built in 18 separate segments on a structure that folds up, each of the segments is around 4.3 feet in diameter.

Engineers at the Northrop Grumman Space Systems performed the final deployment test for the telescope's massive mirror.

NASA/Chris Gunn

The reason why the segments are shaped like hexagons is so that they could fit together with no gaps in between, according to NASA.

Once in orbit, the James Webb Telescope can fully spread its wings, deploying the segments to its sides and initiating detailed observations of our cosmos.

“Deploying both wings of the telescope while part of the fully assembled observatory is another significant milestone showing Webb will deploy properly in space,” Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement.

“This is a great achievement and an inspiring image for the entire team.”

A history of the James Webb Telescope

The James Webb Telescope has been in the works for more than a decade, since 1996. It is meant to be a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been feeding scientists with valuable data and imagery on the cosmos for 30 years.

Once it launches, the James Webb Telescope will be the most powerful telescope ever designed, with an unprecedented ability to observe objects that are far away in the universe and therefore unfold the history of the cosmos.

The James Webb Telescope in its full, shimmery glory.


But it’s been a rather bumpy road to space for this large telescope.

The James Webb Telescope has already endured many delays, with an initial launch window scheduled for 2018, and later pushed back to 2020 and finally set for the year 2021.

As the novel coronavirus continues to threaten space agencies’ plans to carry on with space business as usual, the future remains uncertain for James Webb.

The final test was carried out by limited personnel at Northrop Grumman before NASA shutdown all testing or integration operations. The agency wants to limit the number of its employees on site to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

NASA will reassess the situation for both the James Webb Telescope and its other science operations within the next couple of weeks, and make decisions accordingly. We hope that — sooner rather than later — we might see this gigantic honeycomb make its way out into the cosmos.

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