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NASA James Webb Space Telescope opens golden mirror one last time on Earth

NASA hopes to launch the much-delayed space telescope on Halloween to investigate the secrets of the early universe.

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One wing of the James Webb Space Telescope's main mirror opens into place during a final test of the mirror deployment system in May 2021.

NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope has opened its massive mirror for the final time here on Earth. The next time the golden expanse blooms like an origami flower, it will be in space. 

"The conclusion of this test represents the team's final checkpoint in a long series of tests designed to ensure Webb's 18 hexagonal mirrors are prepared for a long journey in space, and a life of profound discovery," NASA said in a statement on Tuesday.

In a press briefing, NASA and Northrop Grumman -- the primary contractor on the project -- said the next-generation telescope is on track to launch this year. At one point, NASA was aiming for a 2007 launch, but technical delays and the pandemic have pushed back the date to the current target of Oct. 31.

Webb's main mirror spans over 21 feet (6.5 meters). It's so big, it has to fold up to fit into the Ariane 5 launch vehicle that will protect it on its way into space where it will operate at a distance of 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth.

"To deploy, operate and bring its golden mirrors into focus requires 132 individual actuators and motors in addition to complex backend software to support it," NASA said. "A proper deployment in space is critically important to the process of fine-tuning Webb's individual mirrors into one functional and massive reflector."   

During the update, the JWST team said testing of the telescope components and rehearsals of launch and deployment events have gone well. There are still a few tests left to perform before packing the telescope up for shipment to its launch site at the European Spaceport in French Guiana.  

James Webb can't come soon enough. NASA and the European Space Agency's iconic and old Hubble Space Telescope is still holding on, but has faced many technical difficulties over recent years. 

The new telescope will be powerful enough to peer into the early universe and expand our understanding of distant planets. It should be a worthy successor to Hubble's legacy. It just needs to get into space first.

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