How to Pack a Telescope (for a Trip to Space)

A tangled Webb will unfurl itself outside of Earth.

In October of 2018, the James Webb telescope will launch into space, where it will travel beyond the moon to peer, as NASA puts it, into "the beginning of time." The Webb, all in all, is roughly the size of a tennis court. And it is, as space telescopes generally are, packed with tools and instruments that will allow it simultaneously to orbit the sun and to seek (NASA again) "the unobserved formation of the first galaxies."

But you can't very well launch a telescope with all its assorted gadgetry—mirrors, solar arrays, gyroscopes—into space as-is. Instead, you have to pack it all up, strategically. And then deploy its tools once the object has made its forceful departure from Earth. 

The video above, just released from by NASA's Webb Telescope team, illustrates the precise process that will take place, if all goes according to plan, when the Webb launches. You can think of the telescope as a kind of origami object, folded into an Ariane rocket like so many paper cranes. You can also think of it as a kind of butterfly, folded into a cocoon—and ready to spread its wings in space. 

The whole thing is both extremely nerdy and oddly poetic. Instead of a caterpillar turning into a butterfly, it's an object turning into a tool—one that will unfurl and unfold and survey the sky.

Presented by

Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors at a world-class life sciences lab are trying to change the way people think about their health.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Videos

Why Is Google Making Human Skin?

Hidden away on Google’s campus, doctors are changing the way people think about health.

Video

How to Build a Tornado

A Canadian inventor believes his tornado machine could solve the world's energy crisis.

Video

A New York City Minute, Frozen in Time

This short film takes you on a whirling tour of the Big Apple

Video

What Happened to the Milky Way?

Light pollution has taken away our ability to see the stars. Can we save the night sky?

Video

The Pentagon's $1.5 Trillion Mistake

The F-35 fighter jet was supposed to do everything. Instead, it can barely do anything.

More in Technology

Just In