NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope Primary Mirror

James Webb Space Telescope Primary Mirror

Earlier this week, I was invited to give a talk to the Engineering Colloquium at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Before I made my presentation, I was taken on a tour of this storied NASA facility which included an observation room up-close view of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being readied for launch in October of 2018.

We stared down into the telescope’s massive eye, a 6.5-meter (21.3-foot) mirror, comprising eighteen individual segments made of gold-coated and extremely lightweight beryllium which unfold after launch to form the spacecraft’s primary mirror.

The James Webb Space Telescope is a child of many parents. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center has overall responsibility for managing the project. The European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) are developing several key scientific instruments and sensor components, and ESA will also provide their Ariane 5 rocket as the spacecraft’s launch vehicle.

A number of commercial aerospace firms, including Orbital-ATK, Harris and Lockheed Martin, are building hardware and software subsystems, with Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor, building the sunshield and spacecraft and integrating the total system. (I’m a big fan of Northrop Grumman, who built the most reliable and versatile component of Apollo, the Lunar Module.)

The Webb Space Telescope will be launched from Arianespace’s European Spaceport in French Guiana. Being so close to the equator, this location will give the Ariane 5 an added speed boost at launch (and it is also a seriously cool SF-like location for a huge spacecraft’s liftoff point).

james-webb-telescope-instruments-graphic

When fully assembled, the mirror will rest on a sort-of baseball diamond-shaped platform that contains the space telescope’s instrumentation, a solar panel-based power source, a communications antenna, and a multilayered sunshield to protect the observatory from the light and heat of the Sun.

The Webb Space Telescope will be a beast – as big as a tennis court and tall as a four-story building. Just looking down at the mirror assembly itself, the clean room-clad technicians seemed, by comparison, to be the size of Lego superheroes. This space telescope is an extraordinary and unprecedented engineering and scientific accomplishment.

Full Scale Model of James Webb Space Telescope at South By Southwest

Full Scale Model of James Webb Space Telescope at South By Southwest

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, the spectacular achievement of the Space Shuttle era, is still orbiting the Earth and expanding our knowledge of space. Its breathtaking images and extraordinary astronomical discoveries have revolutionized our understanding of the cosmos.

This next generation telescope’s mission is no less ambitious. To quote from the James Webb Space Telescope website, its objective is “to SEE the FIRST LIGHT of the UNIVERSE” (emphasis NASA’s). Its design will allow it to do just that.

The primary mirror of the Webb Space Telescope is nearly three times larger than Hubble’s. And while Hubble’s observations were largely in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths, Webb will focus primarily on light in the near to far infrared range. This will allow it to follow the expanding red-shift of objects located much farther backward in time and space, and thus observe the birth of the first galaxies in the latter stages of the so-called Universe’s Dark Ages, just hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang itself.

As a special bonus, the James Webb Space Telescope will also contribute to the scientific search for extraterrestrial life forms by providing researchers the ability to directly observe distant earth-like exoplanets.

While Hubble orbits the Earth 350 miles above us, the James Webb Space Telescope will inhabit an orbit nearly a million miles further away, and will circle the Sun, not the Earth. The spacecraft will be placed into a special orbital location called the “second Earth-Sun Lagrange point”, or L2, which (through the magic of orbital mechanics) will allow it to orbit the Sun well away from Earth, yet stay synchronized with Earth’s own orbit so that Webb will continually use Earth’s shadow to protect it from the Sun’s heat and light.

james-webb-telescope-location-at-l2The James Webb Space Telescope will settle into its orbit and turn on its instruments in 2018; for the next five to ten years (at least) it will provide humans with as dramatic a revolution in understanding the universe as did Galileo’s telescope during the Renaissance, and as the Hubble Space Telescope did during the era of the Space Shuttle.

NASA and its contractors have several websites dedicated to the James Webb Space Telescope; I’d recommend you start with the NASA Webb Space Telescope link and go from there.

Copyright 2016 Dandelion Beach LLC Images: NASA

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