The most powerful deep space telescope in the known universe just successfully unfurled its main mirror…in space.

NASA James Webb Space Telescope Project Manager Bill Ochs, left, NASA James Webb Space Telescope Commissioning Manager John Durning, right and others from the operations team celebrate, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022, at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, after confirming that the observatory’s final primary mirror wing successfully extended and locked into place. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

On Saturday, January 8 2022, two weeks after NASA launched the James Webb Space Telescope to great fanfare on Christmas Day, scientists at NASA HQ celebrated another rousing success for the Webb.

Once the new telescope reached a certain position, NASA scientists intended for it to finish unfurling its 21.3 foot primary mirror in space. Many orders of magnitude stronger than the Hubble Telescope launched in 1990, the James Webb was built to see further into the reaches of space than any human eye ever dreamed.

But only if that very complicated mirror-unfurling maneuver went off without a hitch. There would be no opportunities to fix Webb, should the delicate function fail.

The thousands of complex moving parts, engineered and assembled on Earth, were designed to withstand the extreme conditions of the launch process and space itself.

NASA James Webb Space Telescope Timeline Coordinator Andria Hagedorn monitors the progress of the Webb observatory’s second primary mirror wing as it rotates into position, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022 from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. (photo: NASA HQ PHOTO)

To say such a thing is a miracle of engineering and design is an understatement. That is worked is borderline miraculous and scientists are right to be excited. A million things that could have gone wrong in the reaches of space, far from any fixes, did not.

Engineering teams celebrate at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore as the second primary mirror wing of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope unfolds, before beginning the process of latching the mirror wing into place, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. When fully latched, the infrared observatory will have completed its unprecedented process of unfolding in space to prepare for science operations. Webb will study every phase of cosmic history — from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

For this reason, scientists at NASA celebrated an incredible success on Saturday, as the last of the mirror’s moving parts rotated into place.

Engineering teams at NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore monitor progress as the observatory’s second primary mirror wing rotates into position, Saturday, Jan. 8, 2022. Webb, an infrared telescope with a 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror, was folded up for launch and underwent an unprecedented deployment process to unfold in space. As NASA’s next flagship observatory, Webb will study every phase of cosmic history — from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Unfolding the mirror in space was an unavoidable aspect of the space telescope. The mirror itself was much too delicate to withstand the rigors of being launched into space with the force of a nuclear explosion while fully unfurled.

Even so, the engineering problem is one of many NASA spent years working out. Other moving parts on the telescope were equally difficult to maneuver through the process of launch.

NASA’s Webb Sunshield Successfully Unfolds and Tensions in Final Tests. Webb is now in its final series of deployment and checkout tests before the observatory is packed for shipment to French Guiana for launch aboard an @ArianeGroup Ariane V rocket. These tests will verify that Webb will deploy perfectly in space after its launch. December 17, 2020. (Image Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

“With the conclusion of the year just days away, we are excited to announce #NASAWebb has cleared one of its most important testing milestones to date,” NASA updated on December 17, 2020. “Webb’s 5-layer sunshield has been successfully deployed and tensioned into the same configuration it will have once in space!”

This archival image was taken in February 2021 and shows the James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield being folded and packed by engineers and technicians at Northrop Grumman. January 26, 2021. (photo:

“Engineers working on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have successfully folded and packed its sunshield for its upcoming million-mile (roughly 1.5 million kilometer) journey, which begins later this year,” NASA continued two months later, describing still more Herculean efforts to launch James Webb. “The sunshield — a five-layer, diamond-shaped structure the size of a tennis court — was specially engineered to fold up around the two sides of the telescope and fit within the confines of its launch vehicle, the Ariane 5 rocket.”

One major problem was the complex components of deep space infrared photography. Mirror and sensors must be maintained at extremely cold temperatures in order to function properly. The technology works by detecting very faint heat signals from very far away.

This image was captured in March 2020 and shows work being done on Webb in the Northrop Grumman cleanroom. During this period the sunshield was being prepped for its final fold. March 12, 2021. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)
These images were captured during Webb’s final tests when the 6.5 meter (21 feet 4 inch) mirror was commanded to fully expand and lock itself into place, just like it would in space. April 30, 2021. (Image credit: Northrop Grumman)
This archival image is from May 2021 when Webb was at the Northrop Grumman facility. During this approximate time period (late spring to early summer), the telescope was having its sunshield packed up and prepped for launch, and the final test fold of the mirror wings was also taking place. May 22, 2021. (photo:

Prepping, testing, packing, prepping, and testing again, engineers and scientists worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to make certain Webb’s delicate internal workings survived a successful launch.

Upon its arrival at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, engineers quickly set about unpacking, cleaning, and preparing the James Webb Space Telescope in its remaining days on Earth. October, 14, 2021. (Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn)

NASA kept the public update on the James Webb Space Telescope’s “Road to launch” as the months progressed. As the December 24, 2021 launch date approached, no stone was left unturned, untested or retested.

On Saturday, Dec. 11, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was secured on top of the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it to space from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. December 11, 2021. (Image credit: ESA-M.Pedoussaut)
Webb is encapsulated in its rocket fairing. December 17, 2021. (Credit: ESA/CNES/Arianespace)

While the launch was postponed until December 25, it was in all other aspects a rousing success. As scientists celebrated, they did so with the knowledge that the unfurling into place of many movable parts might mean their efforts were all in vain.

With this major milestone surpassed, however, NASA can breathe a sigh of relief. The James Webb Space Telescope is soaring through the heavens, having so far exceeded every expectation and sparked every imagination at NASA and beyond.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)