James Webb Space Telescope successfully deploys antenna

This NASA graphic shows the James Webb Space Telescope's antenna assembly (circled) after its deployment on Dec. 26, 2021.
This NASA graphic shows the James Webb Space Telescope's antenna assembly (circled) after its deployment on Dec. 26, 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

NASA's new James Webb Space Telescope successfully deployed a critical antenna Sunday (Dec. 26)  just one day after its Christmas launch into space.

The space telescope unfolded what scientists call a gimbaled antenna assembly that carries the high-rate data dish responsible for beaming Webb's observations of the early universe back to Earth. Webb launched into space Saturday atop an Ariane 5 rocket that lifted off from a spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

"This antenna will be used to send at least 28.6 Gbytes of science data down from the observatory, twice a day," NASA officials wrote in a mission update. "The team has now released and tested the motion of the antenna assembly — the entire process took about one hour."

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The $10 billion Webb space telescope is designed to study the earliest stars in the universe and other cosmic mysteries. It is the largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space.

Saturday's antenna deployment was the latest in a monthlong series of steps to prime the space telescope for its deep-space observing mission. Webb is currently on a 29-day journey to a stable point in space called Lagrange Point 2, or L2, which is nearly 1 million miles (1.6 million kilometers) from Earth. It is from there that the infrared space telescope will observe the universe. 

In addition to the antenna deployment and testing, Webb flight controllers activated the telescope's temperature and strain gauges for the first time, according to NASA's update. Those gauges will allow flight controllers to monitor the Webb space telescope's temperature and structural health in the days to come. 

Related: 5 missions to look forward to after the James Webb Space Telescope

Having an accurate reading of Webb's temperature and structural loads is key for mission scientists and engineers because one of the most harrowing periods for the space telescope is still ahead: deployment of its huge sunshield. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is an infrared observatory designed to make the most detailed observations ever, but only if it can be kept cold enough. To do that, Webb will unfurl a huge multi-layered sunshield the size of a tennis court that will unfold in stages over the first eight days after launch. The first step in that deployment process is expected to begin Tuesday (Dec. 28), three days into the mission. 

The next immediate step for the Webb space telescope will be a second mid-course correction burn, a maneuver designed to refine its course toward L2. That maneuver, the second of three planned burns, is expected to be completed later in the day on Monday.

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of Space.com and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became Space.com's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining Space.com, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at Space.com and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.