Rise of the Super Telescopes: The James Webb Space Telescope

We humans have an insatiable hunger to understand the Universe. As Carl Sagan said, “Understanding is Ecstasy.” But to understand the Universe, we need better and better ways to observe it. And that means one thing: big, huge, enormous telescopes.
In this series we’ll look at 6 of the world’s Super Telescopes:

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope“>James Webb Space Telescope (JWST, or the Webb) may be the most eagerly anticipated of the Super Telescopes. Maybe because it has endured a tortured path on its way to being built. Or maybe because it’s different than the other Super Telescopes, what with it being 1.5 million km (1 million miles) away from Earth once it’s operating.

The JWST will do its observing while in what’s called a halo orbit at L2, a sort of gravitationally neutral point 1.5 million km from Earth. Image: NASA/JWST

If you’ve been following the drama behind the Webb, you’ll know that cost overruns almost caused it to be cancelled. That would’ve been a real shame.

The JWST has been brewing since 1996, but has suffered some bumps along the road. That road and its bumps have been discussed elsewhere, so what follows is a brief rundown.

Initial estimates for the JWST were a $1.6 billion price tag and a launch date of 2011. But the costs ballooned, and there were other problems. This caused the House of Representatives in the US to move to cancel the project in 2011. However, later that same year, US Congress reversed the cancellation. Eventually, the final cost of the Webb came to $8.8 billion, with a launch date set for October, 2018. That means the JWST’s first light will be much sooner than the other Super Telescopes.

The business end of the James Webb Space Telescope is its 18-segment primary mirror. The gleaming, gold-coated beryllium mirror has a collecting area of 25 square meters. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The Webb was envisioned as a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been in operation since 1990. But the Hubble is in Low Earth Orbit, and has a primary mirror of 2.4 meters. The JWST will be located in orbit at the LaGrange 2 point, and its primary mirror will be 6.5 meters. The Hubble observes in the near ultraviolet, visible, and near infrared spectra, while the Webb will observe in long-wavelength (orange-red) visible light, through near-infrared to the mid-infrared. This has some important implications for the science yielded by the Webb.

The Webb’s Instruments

The James Webb is built around four instruments:

  • The Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam)
  • The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec)
  • The Mid-Infrared Instrument(MIRI)
  • The Fine Guidance Sensor/ Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS)
This image shows the wavelengths of the infrared spectrum that Webb’s instruments can observe. Image: NASA/JWST

The NIRCam is Webb’s primary imager. It will observe the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies, the population of stars in nearby galaxies, Kuiper Belt Objects, and young stars in the Milky Way. NIRCam is equipped with coronagraphs, which block out the light from bright objects in order to observe dimmer objects nearby.

NIRSpec will operate in a range from 0 to 5 microns. Its spectrograph will split the light into a spectrum. The resulting spectrum tells us about an objects, temperature, mass, and chemical composition. NIRSpec will observe 100 objects at once.

MIRI is a camera and a spectrograph. It will see the redshifted light of distant galaxies, newly forming stars, objects in the Kuiper Belt, and faint comets. MIRI’s camera will provide wide-field, broadband imaging that will rank up there with the astonishing images that Hubble has given us a steady diet of. The spectrograph will provide physical details of the distant objects it will observe.

The Fine Guidance Sensor part of FGS/NIRISS will give the Webb the precision required to yield high-quality images. NIRISS is a specialized instrument operating in three modes. It will investigate first light detection, exoplanet detection and characterization, and exoplanet transit spectroscopy.

The Science

The over-arching goal of the JWST, along with many other telescopes, is to understand the Universe and our origins. The Webb will investigate four broad themes:

  • First Light and Re-ionization: In the early stages of the Universe, there was no light. The Universe was opaque. Eventually, as it cooled, photons were able to travel more freely. Then, probably hundreds of millions of years after the Big Bang, the first light sources formed: stars. But we don’t know when, or what types of stars.
  • How Galaxies Assemble: We’re accustomed to seeing stunning images of the grand spiral galaxies that exist in the Universe today. But galaxies weren’t always like that. Early galaxies were often small and clumpy. How did they form into the shapes we see today?
  • The Birth of Stars and Protoplanetary Systems: The Webb’s keen eye will peer straight through clouds of dust that ‘scopes like the Hubble can’t see through. Those clouds of dust are where stars are forming, and their protoplanetary systems. What we see there will tell us a lot about the formation of our own Solar System, as well as shedding light on many other questions.
  • Planets and the Origins of Life: We now know that exoplanets are common. We’ve found thousands of them orbiting all types of stars. But we still know very little about them, like how common atmospheres are, and if the building blocks of life are common.

These are all obviously fascinating topics. But in our current times, one of them stands out among the others: Planets and the Origins of Life.

The recent discovery the TRAPPIST 1 system has people excited about possibly discovering life in another solar system. TRAPPIST 1 has 7 terrestrial planets, and 3 of them are in the habitable zone. It was huge news in February 2017. The buzz is still palpable, and people are eagerly awaiting more news about the system. That’s where the JWST comes in.

One big question around the TRAPPIST system is “Do the planets have atmospheres?” The Webb can help us answer this.

The NIRSpec instrument on JWST will be able to detect any atmospheres around the planets. Maybe more importantly, it will be able to investigate the atmospheres, and tell us about their composition. We will know if the atmospheres, if they exist, contain greenhouse gases. The Webb may also detect chemicals like ozone and methane, which are biosignatures and can tell us if life might be present on those planets.

You could say that if the James Webb were able to detect atmospheres on the TRAPPIST 1 planets, and confirm the existence of biosignature chemicals there, it will have done its job already. Even if it stopped working after that. That’s probably far-fetched. But still, the possibility is there.

Launch and Deployment

The science that the JWST will provide is extremely intriguing. But we’re not there yet. There’s still the matter of JWST’s launch, and it’s tricky deployment.

The JWST’s primary mirror is much larger than the Hubble’s. It’s 6.5 meters in diameter, versus 2.4 meters for the Hubble. The Hubble was no problem launching, despite being as large as a school bus. It was placed inside a space shuttle, and deployed by the Canadarm in low earth orbit. That won’t work for the James Webb.

This image shows the Hubble Space Telescope being held above the shuttle’s cargo bay by the Canadian-built Remote Manipulator System (RMS) arm, or Canadarm. A complex operation, but not as complex as JWST’s deployment. Image: NASA

The Webb has to be launched aboard a rocket to be sent on its way to L2, it’s eventual home. And in order to be launched aboard its rocket, it has to fit into a cargo space in the rocket’s nose. That means it has to be folded up.

The mirror, which is made up of 18 segments, is folded into three inside the rocket, and unfolded on its way to L2. The antennae and the solar cells also need to unfold.

Unlike the Hubble, the Webb needs to be kept extremely cool to do its work. It has a cryo-cooler to help with that, but it also has an enormous sunshade. This sunshade is five layers, and very large.

We need all of these components to deploy for the Webb to do its thing. And nothing like this has been tried before.

The Webb’s launch is only 7 months away. That’s really close, considering the project almost got cancelled. There’s a cornucopia of science to be done once it’s working.

But we’re not there yet, and we’ll have to go through the nerve-wracking launch and deployment before we can really get excited.

NASA Webb Telescope Resumes Rigorous Vibration Qualification Tests

NASA engineers and technicians position the James Webb Space Telescope (inside a large tent) onto the shaker table used for vibration testing. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Engineers have resumed a series of critical and rigorous vibration qualification tests on NASA’s mammoth James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt, Maryland to confirm its safety, integrity and readiness for the unforgiving environment of space flight, after pausing due to a testing ‘anomaly’ detected in early December 2016.

The vibration tests are conducted by the team on a shaker table at Goddard to ensure Webb’s worthiness and that it will survive the rough and rumbling ride experienced during the thunderous rocket launch to the heavens slated for late 2018.

“Testing on the ground is critical to proving a spacecraft is safe to launch,” said Lee Feinberg, an engineer and James Webb Space Telescope Optical Telescope Element Manager at Goddard, in a statement.

“The Webb telescope is the most dynamically complicated article of space hardware that we’ve ever tested.”

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Testing of the gargantuan Webb Telescope had ground to a halt after a brief scare in early December when technicians initially detected “anomalous readings” that raised potential concerns about the observatories structural integrity partway through a preplanned series of vibration tests.

“On December 3, 2016, vibration testing automatically shut down early due to some sensor readings that exceeded predicted levels,” officials said.

Thereafter, engineers and technicians carried out a new batch of intensive inspections of the observatory’s structure during December.

Shortly before Christmas, NASA announced on Dec. 23 that JWST was deemed “sound” and apparently unscathed after engineers conducted both “visual and ultrasonic examinations” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Officials said the telescope was found to be safe at this point with “no visible signs of damage.”

As it turned out the culprit of the sensor anomaly was the many “tie-down … restraint mechanisms ” that hold the telescope in place.

“After a thorough investigation, the James Webb Space Telescope team at NASA Goddard determined that the cause was extremely small motions of the numerous tie-downs or “launch restraint mechanisms” that keep one of the telescope’s mirror wings folded-up for launch,” NASA officials explained in a statement.

Furthermore engineers revealingly discovered that “the ground vibration test itself is more severe than the launch vibration environment.”

Technicians work on the James Webb Space Telescope in the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016, as the completed golden primary mirror and observatory structure stands gloriously vertical on a work stand, reflecting incoming light from the area and observation deck. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA reported today (Jan. 25) that the testing resumed last week at the point where it had been paused. Furthermore the testing was completed along the first of three axis.

“In-depth analysis of the test sensor data and detailed computer simulations confirmed that the input vibration was strong enough and the resonance of the telescope high enough at specific vibration frequencies to generate these tiny motions. Now that we understand how it happened, we have implemented changes to the test profile to prevent it from happening again,” explained Feinberg.

“We have learned valuable lessons that will be applied to the final pre-launch tests of Webb at the observatory level once it is fully assembled in 2018. Fortunately, by learning these lessons early, we’ve been able to add diagnostic tests that let us show how the ground vibration test itself is more severe than the launch vibration environment in a way that can give us confidence that the launch itself will be fully successful.”

The next step is to resume and complete shaking the telescope in the other two axis, or “two directions to show that it can withstand vibrations in all three dimensions.”

“This was a great team effort between the NASA Goddard team, Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK, Ball Aerospace, the European Space Agency, and Arianespace,” Feinberg said. “We can now proceed with the rest of the planned tests of the telescope and instruments.”

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and is the scientific successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST). The mammoth 6.5 meter diameter primary mirror has enough light gathering capability to scan back over 13.5 billion years and see the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the early universe.

The Webb telescope will launch on an ESA Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

But Webb and its 18 segment “golden” primary mirror have to be carefully folded up to fit inside the nosecone of the Ariane V booster.

“Due to its immense size, Webb has to be folded-up for launch and then unfolded in space. Prior generations of telescopes relied on rigid, non-moving structures for their stability. Because our mirror is larger than the rocket fairing we needed structures folded for launch and moved once we’re out of Earth’s atmosphere. Webb is the first time we’re building for both stability and mobility.” Feinberg said.

“This means that JWST testing is very unique, complex, and challenging.”

View showing actual flight structure of mirror backplane unit for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that holds 18 segment primary mirror array and secondary mirror mount at front, in stowed-for-launch configuration. JWST is being assembled here by technicians inside the world’s largest cleanroom at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The environmental testing is being done at Goddard before shipping the huge structure to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in February 2017 for further ultra low temperature testing in the cryovac thermal vacuum chamber.

The 6.5 meter diameter ‘golden’ primary mirror is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments – looking honeycomb-like in appearance.

And it’s just mesmerizing to gaze at – as I had the opportunity to do on a few occasions at Goddard this past year – standing vertically in November and seated horizontally in May.

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments measures just over 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighs approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms). They are made of beryllium, gold coated and about the size of a coffee table.

All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming. It will also study the history of our universe and the formation of our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, some of which may be capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth.

Gold coated primary mirrors newly exposed on spacecraft structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for my ongoing reports on JWST mirrors, science, construction and testing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL

NASA Webb Telescope Structure is Sound After Vibration Testing Detects Anomaly

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now deemed “sound” and apparently unscathed, engineers have concluded, based on results from a new batch of intensive inspections of the observatory’s structure, after concerns were raised in early December when technicians initially detected “anomalous readings” during a preplanned series of vibration tests, NASA announced Dec. 23.

After conducting both “visual and ultrasonic examinations” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, engineers have found it to be safe at this point with “no visible signs of damage.”

But because so much is on the line with NASA’s $8.8 Billion groundbreaking Webb telescope mission that will peer back to nearly the dawn of time, engineers are still investigating the “root cause” of the “vibration anomaly” first detected amidst shake testing on Dec. 3.

“The team is making good progress at identifying the root cause of the vibration anomaly,” NASA explained in a Dec 23 statement – much to everyone’s relief!

“They have successfully conducted two low level vibrations of the telescope.”

“All visual and ultrasonic examinations of the structure continue to show it to be sound.”

Technicians work on the James Webb Space Telescope in the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016, as the completed golden primary mirror and observatory structure stands gloriously vertical on a work stand, reflecting incoming light from the area and observation deck. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Starting late November, technicians began a defined series of environmental tests including vibration and acoustics tests to make sure that the telescopes huge optical structure was fit for blastoff and could safely withstand the powerful shaking encountered during a rocket launch and the especially harsh rigors of the space environment. It would be useless otherwise – unable to carry out unparallelled science.

To carry out the vibration and acoustics tests conducted on equipment located in a shirtsleeve environment, the telescope structure was first carefully placed inside a ‘clean tent’ structure to protect it from dirt and grime and maintain the pristine clean room conditions available inside Goddard’s massive clean room – where it has been undergoing assembly for the past year.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope placed inside a “clean tent” in Nov. 2016 to protect it from dust and dirt as engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland transport it out of the relatively dust-free cleanroom and into a shirtsleeve environment to conduct vibration and acoustics tests to confirm it is fit for launch in 2018. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and is the scientific successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

The mammoth 6.5 meter diameter primary mirror has enough light gathering capability to scan back over 13.5 billion years and see the formation of the first stars and galaxies in the early universe.

The Webb telescope will launch on an ESA Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing testing to make sure the spacecraft withstands the harsh conditions of launch, and to find and remedy all possible concerns before it is launched from French Guiana in 2018.”

However, shortly after the vibration testing began technicians soon discovered unexpected “anomalous readings” during a shake test of the telescope on Dec. 3, as the agency initially announced in a status update on the JWST website.

The anomalous readings were found during one of the vibration tests in progress on the shaker table, via accelerometers attached to the observatories optical structure known as OTIS.

“During the vibration testing on December 3, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, accelerometers attached to the telescope detected anomalous readings during a particular test,” the team elaborated.

So the team quickly conducted further “low level vibration” tests and inspections to more fully understand the nature of the anomaly, as well as scrutinize the accelerometer data for clues.

“Further tests to identify the source of the anomaly are underway. The engineering team investigating the vibe anomaly has made numerous detailed visual inspections of the Webb telescope and has found no visible signs of damage.”

“They are continuing their analysis of accelerometer data to better determine the source of the anomaly.”

The team is measuring and recording the responses of the structure to the fresh low level vibration tests and will compare these new data to results obtained prior to detection of the anomaly.

Work continues over the holidays to ensure Webb is safe and sound and can meet its 2018 launch target. After thoroughly reviewing all the data the team hope to restart the planned vibration and acoustic testing in the new year.

“Currently, the team is continuing their analyses with the goal of having a review of their findings, conclusions and plans for resuming vibration testing in January.”

Webb’s massive optical structure being tested is known as OTIS or Optical Telescope element and Integrated Science. It includes the fully assembled 18-segment gold coated primary mirror and the science instrument module housing the four science instruments

OTIS is a combination of the OTE (Optical Telescope Assembly) and the ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module) together.

“OTIS is essentially the entire optical train of the observatory!” said John Durning, Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, in an earlier exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“It’s the critical photon path for the system.”

The components were fully integrated this past summer at Goddard.

The combined OTIS entity of mirrors, science module and backplane truss weighs 8786 lbs (3940 kg) and measures 28’3” (8.6m) x 8”5” (2.6 m) x 7”10“ (2.4 m).

The environmental testing is being done at Goddard before shipping the huge structure to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in February 2017 for further ultra low temperature testing in the cryovac thermal vacuum chamber.

The 6.5 meter diameter ‘golden’ primary mirror is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments – looking honeycomb-like in appearance.

And it’s just mesmerizing to gaze at – as I had the opportunity to do on a few occasions at Goddard this past year – standing vertically in November and seated horizontally in May.

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments measures just over 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighs approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms). They are made of beryllium, gold coated and about the size of a coffee table.

All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming.

It will also study the history of our universe and the formation of our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, some of which may be capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth.

Up close side-view of newly exposed gold coated primary mirrors installed onto mirror backplane holding structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for my ongoing reports on JWST mirrors, science, construction and testing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Ken Kremer/Universe Today reflecting in and about the golden mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope which will peer back 13.5 Billion years to unravel the mysteries off the formation of the early Universe and tell us how our place in the Universe came to be. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

James Webb Space Telescope Celebrated in Stunning New Video

Behold, the mighty primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, in all its gleaming glory! Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA has some high hopes for the James Webb Space Telescope, which finished “cold” phase of its construction at the end of November, 2016. The result of 20 years of engineering and construction, this telescope is seen as Hubble’s natural successor. Once it is deployed in October of 2018, it will use a 6.5 meter (21 ft 4 in) primary mirror to examine the Universe in the visible, near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths.

All told, the JWST will be 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, and will be capable of looking over 13 billion years in time. To honor the completion of the telescope, Northrop Grumman – the company contracted by NASA to build it – and Crazy Boat Pictures teamed up to produce a short film about it. Titled “Into the Unknown – the Story of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope“, the video chronicles the project from inception to completion.

The film (which you can watch at the bottom of the page) shows the construction of the telescopes large mirrors, its instrument package and its framework. It also features conversations with the scientists and engineers who were involved, and some stunning visuals. In addition to detailing the creation process, the film also delves into the telescope’s mission and all the cosmological questions it will address.

In addressing the nature of James Webb’s mission, the film also pays homage to the Hubble Space Telescope and its many accomplishments. Over the course of its 26 years of operation, it has revealed auroras, supernovas and discovered billions of stars, galaxies and exoplanets, some of which were shown to orbit within their star’s respective habitable zones.

On top of that, Hubble was used to determine the age of the Universe (13.8 billion years) and confirmed the existence of the supermassive black hole (SMBH) – aka. Sagitarrius A* – at the center of our galaxy, not to mention many others. It was also responsible for measuring the rate at which the Universe is expanding – in other words, measuring the Hubble Constant.

This played a pivotal role in helping scientists to develop the theory of Dark Energy, one of the most profound discoveries since Edwin Hubble (the telescope’s namesake) proposed that the Universe is in a state of expansion back in 1929. So it goes without saying that the deployment of the Hubble Space Telescope led to some of greatest discoveries in modern astronomy.

That being said, Hubble is still subject to limitations, which astronomers are now hoping to push past. For one, its instruments are not able to pick up the most distant (and hence, dimmest) galaxies in the Universe, which date to just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Even with “The Deep Fields” initiative, Hubble is still limited to seeing back to about half a billion years after the Big Bang.

Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. The goal of the Frontier Fields is to peer back further than the Hubble Ultra Deep Field and get a wealth of images of galaxies as they existed in the first several hundred million years after the Big Bang. Note that the unit of time is not linear in this illustration. Illustration Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)
Illustration of the depth by which Hubble imaged galaxies in prior Deep Field initiatives, in units of the Age of the Universe. Credit: NASA and A. Feild (STScI)

As Dr. John Mather, the project scientist for the James Webb Telescope, told Universe Today via email:

“Hubble showed us that we could not see the first galaxies being born, because they’re too far away, too faint, and too red. JWST is bigger, colder, and observes infrared light to see those first galaxies.  Hubble showed us there’s a black hole in the center of almost every galaxy. JWST will look as far back in time as possible to see when and how that happened: did the galaxy form the black hole, or did the galaxy grow around a pre-existing black hole?  Hubble showed us great clouds of glowing gas and dust where stars are being born. JWST will look through the dust clouds to see the stars themselves as they form in the cloud. Hubble showed us that we can see some planets around other stars, and that we can get chemical information about other planets that happen to pass directly in front of their stars.  JWST will extend this to longer wavelengths with a bigger telescope, with a possibility of detecting water on a super-Earth exoplanet. Hubble showed us details of planets and asteroids close to home, and JWST will give a closer look, though it’s still better to send a visiting robot if we can.”
Basically, the JWST will be able to see farther back to about 100 million years after the Big Bang, when the first stars and galaxies were born. It is also designed to operate at the L2 Lagrange Point, farther away from the Earth than Hubble – which was designed to remain in low-Earth orbit. This means the JWST will subject to less thermal and optical interference from the Earth and the Moon, but will also make it more difficult to service.

With its much larger set of segmented mirrors, it will observe the Universe as it capture light from the first galaxies and stars. Its extremely-sensitive suite of optics will also be able to gather information in the long-wavelength (orange-red) and infrared wavelengths with greater accuracy, measuring the redshift of distant galaxies, and even helping in the hunt for extra-solar planets.

A primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, made of beryllium. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given
A primary mirror segments of the James Webb Space Telescope, made of beryllium. Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given

With the assembly of its major components now complete, the telescope will spend the next two years undergoing tests before its scheduled launch date in October of 2018. These will include stress tests that will subject the telescope to the types of intense vibrations, sounds and g forces (ten times Earth normal) it will experience inside the Ariane 5 rocket that will take it into space.

Six months before its deployment, NASA also plans to send the JWST to the Johnson Space Center where it will be subjected to the kinds of conditions it will experience in space. This will consists of scientists placing the telescope in a chamber where temperatures will be lowered to 53 K (-220 °C; -370 °F), which will simulate its operating conditions at the L2 Lagrange Point.

Once all of that is complete and the JWST checks out, it will be launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch pad in French Guayana. And thanks to experience gained from Hubble and updated algorithms, the telescope will be focused and gathering information shortly after it is launched. And as Dr. Mather explained, the big cosmological questions it is expected to address are numerous:

“Where did we come from? The Big Bang gave us hydrogen and helium spread out almost uniformly across the universe. But something, presumably gravity, stopped the expansion of the material and turned it into galaxies and stars and black holes. JWST will look at all these processes: how did the first luminous objects form, and what were they? How and where did the black holes form, and what did they do to the growing galaxies? How did the galaxies cluster together, and how did galaxies like the Milky Way grow and develop their beautiful spiral structure? Where is the cosmic dark matter and how does it affect ordinary matter? How much dark energy is there, and how does it change with time?”

Needless to say, NASA and the astronomical community are quite excited that the James Webb Telescope is finished construction, and can’t wait until it is deployed and begins to send back data. One can only imagine the kinds of things it will see deep in the cosmic field. But in the meantime, be sure to check out the film and see how this effort all came together:

Further Reading: NASA – JWST, Northrop Grumman

Webb Telescope Gets its Science Instruments Installed

In this rare view, the James Webb Space Telescope team crane lifted the science instrument package for installation into the telescope structure.  Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
In this rare view, the James Webb Space Telescope team crane lifted the science instrument package for installation into the telescope structure. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

The package of powerful science instruments at the heart of NASA’s mammoth James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) have been successfully installed into the telescopes structure.

A team of two dozen engineers and technicians working with “surgical precision” inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, meticulously guided the instrument package known as the ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module) into the telescope truss structure.

ISIM is located right behind the 6.5 meter diameter golden primary mirror – as seen in NASA’s and my photos herein.

The ISIM holds the observatory’s international quartet of state-of-the-art research instruments, funded, built and provided by research teams in the US, Canada and Europe.

“This is a tremendous accomplishment for our worldwide team,” said John Mather, James Webb Space Telescope Project Scientist and Nobel Laureate, in a statement.

“There are vital instruments in this package from Europe and Canada as well as the US and we are so proud that everything is working so beautifully, 20 years after we started designing our observatory.”

This side shot shows a glimpse inside a massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where the James Webb Space Telescope team worked meticulously to complete the science instrument package installation.  Credits: NASA/Desiree Stover
This side shot shows a glimpse inside a massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where the James Webb Space Telescope team worked meticulously to complete the science instrument package installation. Credits: NASA/Desiree Stover

Just as with the mirrors installation and other assembly tasks, the technicians practiced the crucial ISIM installation procedure numerous times via test runs, computer modeling and a mock-up of the instrument package.

To accomplish the ISIM installation, the telescope structure had to be flipped over and placed into the giant work gantry in the clean room to enable access by the technicians.

“The telescope structure has to be turned over and put into the gantry system [in the clean room],” said John Durning, Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“Then we take ISIM and install in the back of the telescope.”

The team used an overhead crane to lift and maneuver the heavy ISIM science instrument package in the clean room. Then they lowered it into the enclosure behind the mirrors on the telescopes backside and secured it to the structure.

“Our personnel were navigating a very tight space with very valuable hardware,” said Jamie Dunn, ISIM Manager.

“We needed the room to be quiet so if someone said something we would be able to hear them. You listen not only for what other people say, but to hear if something doesn’t sound right.”

Up close view shows cone shaped Aft Optics Subsystem (AOS) standing at center of Webb telescopes 18 segment primary mirror at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.  ISIM science instrument module will be installed inside truss structure below.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view shows cone shaped Aft Optics Subsystem (AOS) standing at center of Webb telescopes 18 segment primary mirror at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. ISIM science instrument module will be installed inside truss structure below. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The ISIM installation continues the excellently executed final assembly phase of Webb at Goddard this year. And comes just weeks after workers finished installing the entire mirror system.

This author has witnessed and reported on the assembly progress at Goddard on numerous occasions, including after the mirrors were recently uncovered and unveiled in all their golden glory.

“The entire mirror system is checked out. The system has been integrated and the alignment has been checked,” said John Durning, Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Up close side-view of newly exposed gold coated primary mirrors installed onto mirror backplane holding structure of  NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.   Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close side-view of newly exposed gold coated primary mirrors installed onto mirror backplane holding structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

ISIM is a collection of cameras and spectrographs that will record the light collected by Webb’s giant golden primary mirror.

“It will take us a few months to install ISIM and align it and make sure everything is where it needs to be,” Durning told me.

The primary mirror is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments.

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments measures just over 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighs approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms). They are made of beryllium, gold coated and about the size of a coffee table.

Webb’s golden mirror structure was tilted up for a very brief period on May 4 as seen in this NASA time-lapse video:

The 18-segment primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on May 4, 2016. Credit: NASA

The gargantuan observatory will significantly exceed the light gathering power of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) – currently the most powerful space telescope ever sent to space.

With the mirror structure complete, the next step was the ISIM science module installation.

To accomplish that installation, technicians carefully moved the Webb mirror structure into the clean room gantry structure.

As shown in this time-lapse video we created from Webbcam images, they tilted the structure vertically, flipped it around, lowered it back down horizontally and then transported it via an overhead crane into the work platform.

Time-lapse showing the uncovered 18-segment primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being raised into vertical position, flipped and lowered upside down to horizontal position and then moved to processing gantry in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on May 4/5, 2016. Images: NASA Webbcam. Time-lapse by Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Alex Polimeni

The telescope will launch on an Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming. It will also study the history of our universe and the formation of our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, some of which may be capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth.

All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.  The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

More about ISIM and upcoming testing in the next story.

Watch this space for my ongoing reports on JWST mirrors, science, construction and testing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Unveiled Webb Telescope Mirrors Mesmerize in ‘Golden’ Glory

All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.  The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 gold coated primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully unveiled after removal of protective covers installed onto the backplane structure, as technicians work inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – It’s Mesmerizing ! That’s the overwhelming feeling expressed among the fortunate few setting their own eyeballs on the newly exposed golden primary mirror at the heart of NASA’s mammoth James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – a sentiment shared by the team building the one-of-its-kind observatory and myself during a visit this week by Universe Today.

“The telescope is cup up now [concave]. So you see it in all its glory!” said John Durning, Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center on Tuesday, May 3, after the covers were carefully removed just days ago from all 18 primary mirror segments and the structure was temporarily pointed face up.

“The entire mirror system is checked out, integrated and the alignment has been checked.”

Up close side-view of newly exposed gold coated primary mirrors installed onto mirror backplane holding structure of  NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.   Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close side-view of newly exposed gold coated primary mirrors installed onto mirror backplane holding structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

It’s a banner year for JWST at Goddard where the engineers and technicians are well into the final assembly and integration phase of the optical and science instrument portion of the colossal observatory that will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos and our place it in. And they are moving along at a rapid pace.

JWST is the scientific successor to NASA’s 25 year old Hubble Space Telescope. It will become the biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built by humankind after it launches 30 months from now.

The flight structure for the backplane assembly truss that holds the mirrors and science instruments arrived at Goddard last August from Webb prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California.

The painstaking assembly work to piece together the 6.5 meter diameter primary mirror began just before the Thanksgiving 2015 holiday, when the first unit was successfully installed onto the central segment of the mirror holding backplane assembly.

Technicians from Goddard and Harris Corporation of Rochester, New York then methodically populated the backplane assembly one-by-one, sequentially installing the last primary mirror segment in February followed by the single secondary mirror at the top of the massive trio of mirror mount booms and the tertiary and steering mirrors inside the Aft Optics System (AOS).

Up close view shows cone shaped Aft Optics Subsystem (AOS) standing at center of Webb telescopes 18 segment primary mirror at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.  ISIM science instrument module will be installed inside truss structure below.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view shows cone shaped Aft Optics Subsystem (AOS) standing at center of Webb telescopes 18 segment primary mirror at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. ISIM science instrument module will be installed inside truss structure below. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Everything proceeded according to the meticulously choreographed schedule.

“The mirror installation went exceeding well,” Durning told Universe Today.

“We have maintained our schedule the entire time for installing all 18 primary mirror segments. Then the center section, which is the cone in the center, comprising the Aft Optics System (AOS). We installed that two months ago. It went exceedingly well.”

The flight structure and backplane assembly serve as the $8.6 Billion Webb telescopes backbone.

The next step is to install the observatory’s quartet of state-of-the-art research instruments, a package known as the ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module), in the truss structure over the next few weeks.

“The telescope is fully integrated and we are now doing the final touches to get prepared to accept the instrument pack which will start happening later this week,” Durning explained.

The integrated optical mirror system and ISIM form Webb’s optical train.

“So we are just now creating the new integration entity called OTIS – which is a combination of the OTE (Optical Telescope Assembly) and the ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module) together.”

“That’s essentially the entire optical train of the observatory!” Durning stated.

“It’s the critical photon path for the system. So we will have that integrated over the next few weeks.”

The combined OTIS entity of mirrors, science module and backplane truss weighs 8786 lbs (3940 kg) and measures 28’3” (8.6m) x 8”5” (2.6 m) x 7”10“ (2.4 m).

Gold coated primary mirrors newly exposed on spacecraft structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016.   Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Gold coated primary mirrors newly exposed on spacecraft structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland on May 3, 2016. Aft optics subsystem stands upright at center of 18 mirror segments between stowed secondary mirror mount booms. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

After OTIS is fully integrated, engineers and technicians will spend the rest of the year exposing it to environmental testing, adding the thermal blanketry and testing the optical train – before shipping the huge structure to NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

“Then we will send it to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) early next year to do some cryovac testing, and the post environmental test verification of the optical system,” During elaborated.

“In the meantime Northrup Grumman is finishing the fabrication of the sunshield and finishing the integration of the spacecraft components into their pieces.”

“Then late in 2017 is when the two pieces – the OTIS configuration and the sunshield configuration – come together for the first time as a full observatory. That happens at Northrup Grumman in Redondo Beach.”

Webb’s optical train is comprised of four different mirrors. We discussed the details of the mirrors, their installation, and testing.

“There are four mirror surfaces,” Durning said.

“We have the large primary mirror of 18 segments, the secondary mirror sitting on the tripod above it, and the center section looking like a pyramid structure [AOS] contains the tertiary mirror and the fine steering mirror.”

“The AOS comes as a complete package. That got inserted down the middle [of the primary mirror].”

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments measures just over 4.2 feet (1.3 meters) across and weighs approximately 88 pounds (40 kilograms). They are made of beryllium, gold coated and about the size of a coffee table.

In space, the folded mirror structure will unfold into side by side sections and work together as one large 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) mirror, unprecedented in size and light gathering capability.

The lone rounded secondary mirror sits at the top of the tripod boom over the primary.

The tertiary mirror and fine steering mirror sit in the Aft Optics System (AOS), a cone shaped unit located at the center of the primary mirror.

“So how it works is the light from the primary mirror bounces up to the secondary, and the secondary bounces down to the tertiary,” Durning explained.

“And then the tertiary – which is within that AOS structure – bounces down to the steering mirror. And then that steering mirror steers the beams of photons to the pick off mirrors that sit below in the ISIM structure.”

“So the photons go through that AOS cone. There is a mask at the top that cuts off the path so we have a fixed shape of the beam coming through.”

“It’s the tertiary mirror that directs the photons to the fine steering mirror. The fine steering mirror then directs it [the photons] to the pick off mirrors that sit below in the ISIM structure.”

So the alignment between the AOS system and the telescopes primary and secondary mirrors is incredibly critical.

“The AOS tertiary mirror catches the light [from the secondary mirror] and directs the light to the steering mirror. The requirements for alignment were just what we needed. So that was excellent progress.”

“So the entire mirror system is checked out. The system has been integrated and the alignment has been checked.”

Webb’s golden mirror structure was tilted up for a very brief period this week on May 4 as seen in this NASA time-lapse video:

The 18-segment primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope was raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on May 4, 2016. Credit: NASA

The gargantuan observatory will significantly exceed the light gathering power of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) – currently the most powerful space telescope ever sent to space.

With the mirror structure complete, the next step is ISIM science module installation.

To accomplish that, technicians carefully moved the Webb mirror structure this week into the clean room gantry structure.

As shown in this time-lapse video we created from Webbcam images, they tilted the structure vertically, flipped it around, lowered it back down horizontally and then transported it via an overhead crane into the work platform.

Time-lapse showing the uncovered 18-segment primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being raised into vertical position, flipped and lowered upside down to horizontal position and then moved to processing gantry in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on May 4/5, 2016. Images: NASA Webbcam. Time-lapse by Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Alex Polimeni

The telescope will launch on an Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming. It will also study the history of our universe and the formation of our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, some of which may be capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth.

More about ISIM in the next story.

Watch this space for my ongoing reports on JWST mirrors, science, construction and testing.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

View showing actual flight structure of mirror backplane unit for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that holds 18 segment primary mirror array and secondary mirror mount at front, in stowed-for-launch configuration.  JWST is being assembled here by technicians inside the world’s largest cleanroom at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
View showing actual flight structure of mirror backplane unit for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that holds 18 segment primary mirror array and secondary mirror mount at front, in stowed-for-launch configuration. JWST is being assembled here by technicians inside the world’s largest cleanroom at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
John Durning/Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss assembly process of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
John Durning/Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, and Ken Kremer/Universe Today discuss assembly process of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
The James Webb Space Telescope. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
The James Webb Space Telescope.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL

James Webb Space Telescope Takes The Gloves Off

Behold, the mighty primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope, in all its gleaming glory! Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) isn’t even operational yet, and already its gleaming golden mirror has reached iconic status. It’s segmented mirror is reminiscent of an insect eye, and once that eye is unfolded at its eventual stationary location at L2, the JWST will give humanity its best view of the Universe yet. Now, NASA has unveiled the JWST’s mirrors in a clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, giving us a great look at what the telescope will look like when it’s operational.

Even if you didn’t know anything about the JWST, its capabilities, or its torturous path to finally being built, you would still look at it and be impressed. It’s obviously a highly technological, highly engineered, one of a kind object. In fact, you could be forgiven for mistaking it for a piece of modern art. (I’ve seen less appealing modern art, have you?)

The fact that the JWST will outperform its predecessor, the Hubble, is a well-known fact. After all, the Hubble is pretty long in the tooth now. But how exactly it will outperform the Hubble, and what the JWST’s mission objectives are, is less well-known. It’s worth it to take a look at the objectives of the JWST, again, and re-visit the enthusiasm that has surrounded this mission since its inception.

The James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
The James Webb Space Telescope in the clean room at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA groups JWST’s science objectives into four areas:

  • infrared vision that acts like a time-machine, giving us a look at the first stars and galaxies to form in the Universe, over 13 billion years ago.
  • a comparative study of the stately spiral and elliptical galaxies of our age with the faintest, earliest galaxies to form in the Universe.
  • a probing gaze through clouds of dust, to watch stars and planets being born.
  • a look at extrasolar planets, and their atmospheres, keeping an eye out for biomarkers.

That is an impressive list, even in an age where people take technological and scientific progress for granted. But alongside these noble objectives, there will no doubt be some surprises. Guessing what those surprises might be is a bit of a fool’s errand, but this is the internet, so let’s dare to be foolish.

We have an idea that abiogenesis on Earth happened fairly quickly, but we have nothing to compare it to. Will we learn enough about exoplanets and their atmospheres to shed some light on conditions needed for life to happen? It’s a stretch, but who knows?

We have an understanding of the expansion of the Universe, and it’s backed up by pretty solid evidence. Will we learn something surprising about this? Or something that sheds some light on Dark Matter and Dark Energy, and their role in the early Universe?

Or will there be surprising findings in the area of planetary and stellar formation? The capability to look deeply into dust clouds should certainly reveal things previously unseen, but only guessed at.

Of course, not everything needs to be surprising to be exciting. Evidence that supports and fine tunes current theories is also intriguing. And the James Webb should deliver a boatload of evidence.

There’s no question that the JWST will outdo the Hubble in the science department. But for a generation or two of people, the Hubble will always have a special place. It drew many of us in, with its breathtaking pictures of nebulae and other objects, its famous Deep Field study, and, of course, its science. It was probably the first telescope to gain celebrity status.

The James Webb will probably never gain the social status that the Hubble gained. It’s kind of like the Beatles, there can only be one ‘first of its kind.’ But the JWST will be much more powerful, and will reveal to us a lot that has been hidden.

The JWST will be a grand technological accomplishment, if all goes well and it makes it to L2 and is fully functional. Its ability to look deeply into dust clouds, and to look back in time, to the early days of the Universe, make it a potent scientific tool.

And if engineering can figure out a way to reverse the polarity in the warp core without it going crit, we should be able to fire a beam of tachyon anti-matter neutrinos and de-cloak a Romulan Warbird at a distance of 3 AUs. Not bad for something Congress threatened to cancel!

NASA’s ‘Hubble Hugger’ and Science Chief John Grunsfeld To Retire

In this March 2002 image, John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, is shown in space shuttle Columbia's cargo bay during the STS-109 Hubble servicing mission.  Credits: NASA
In this March 2002 image, John Grunsfeld, former astronaut and associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, is shown in space shuttle Columbia’s cargo bay during the STS-109 Hubble servicing mission. Credits: NASA

Five time space shuttle astronaut and current NASA science chief John Grunsfeld – best known as the ‘Hubble Hugger’ for three critical and dramatic servicing and upgrade missions to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope – his decided to retire from the space agency he faithfully served since being selected as an astronaut in 1992.

“John Grunsfeld will retire from NASA April 30, capping nearly four decades of science and exploration with the agency. His tenure includes serving as astronaut, chief scientist, and head of NASA’s Earth and space science activities,” NASA announced.

Indeed, Grunsfeld was the last human to touch the telescope during the STS-125 servicing mission in 2009 when he served as lead spacewalker.

The STS-125 mission successfully upgraded the observatory to the apex of its scientific capability during five spacewalks by four astronauts and extended the life of the aging telescope for many years. Hubble remains fully operable to this day!

In April 2015, Hubble celebrated 25 years of operations, vastly outperforming its planned lifetime of 15 years.

“Hubble has given us 25 years of great service. Hopefully we’ll get another 5 to 10 years of unraveling the mysteries of the Universe,” Grunsfeld told me during a recent interview at NASA Goddard.

Astronaut John Grunsfeld performs work on the Hubble Space Telescope on the first of five STS-125 spacewalks. Credit: NASA
Astronaut John Grunsfeld performs work on the Hubble Space Telescope on the first of five STS-125 spacewalks. Credit: NASA

In his most recent assignment, Grunsfeld was NASA’s Science Chief working as the Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. since January 2012.

“John leaves an extraordinary legacy of success that will forever remain a part of our nation’s historic science and exploration achievements,” said NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, in a statement.

“Widely known as the ‘Hubble Repairman,’ it was an honor to serve with him in the astronaut corps and watch him lead NASA’s science portfolio during a time of remarkable discovery. These are discoveries that have rewritten science textbooks and inspired the next generation of space explorers.”

Grunsfeld was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2015.

He received his PhD in physics in 1988 and conducted extensive research as an astronomer in the fields of x-ray and gamma ray astronomy and high-energy cosmic ray studies.

Crew of STS-125, including John Grunsfeld, center, during walkout to Astrovan ahead of launch on May 11, 2009, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on final mission to service NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Crew of STS-125, including John Grunsfeld, center, during walkout to Astrovan ahead of launch on May 11, 2009, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on final mission to service NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

NASA said that Grunsfeld’s deputy Geoff Yoder will serve as SMD acting associate administrator until a successor is named.

“After exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life in the universe, I can now boldly go where I’ve rarely gone before – home,” said Grunsfeld.

“I’m grateful to have had this extraordinary opportunity to lead NASA science, and know that the agency is well-positioned to make the next giant leaps in exploration and discovery.”

During his tenure as science chief leading NASA’s Science Mission Directorate Grunsfeld was responsible for managing over 100 NASA science missions including the Mars orbital and surface assets like the Curiosity and Opportunity Mars rovers, New Horizons at Pluto, MESSENGER, upcoming Mars 2020 rover and OSIRIS-Rex as well as Earth science missions like the Deep Space Climate Observatory, Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, and Global Precipitation Measurement spacecraft -which resulted numerous groundbreaking science, findings and discoveries.

NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit:  Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate John Grunsfeld, left, New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, CO, second from left, New Horizons Mission Operations Manager Alice Bowman of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), second from right, and New Horizons Project Manager Glen Fountain of APL, right, are seen at the conclusion of a press conference after the team received confirmation from the spacecraft that it has completed the flyby of Pluto, Tuesday, July 14, 2015 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Dr. Grunsfeld is a veteran of five spaceflights: STS-67 (1995), STS-81 (1997), STS-103 (1999) STS-109 (2002) and STS-125 (2009), during which time he logged more than 58 days in space, including 58 hours and 30 minutes of EVA in 8 spacewalks.

He briefly retired from NASA in December 2009 to serve as Deputy Director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Baltimore, Maryland. He then returned to NASA in January 2012 to serve as SMD head for over four years until now.

NASA Science chief and astronaut John Grunsfeld discusses James Webb Space Telescope project at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Science chief and astronaut John Grunsfeld discusses James Webb Space Telescope project at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

From his NASA bio, here is a summary of John Grunsfeld’s space flight experience during five shuttle flights:

STS-67/Astro-2 Endeavour (March 2 to March 18, 1995) launched from Kennedy Space Center, Florida, and landed at Edwards Air Force Base, California. It was the second flight of the Astro observatory, a unique complement of three ultraviolet telescopes. During this record-setting 16-day mission, the crew conducted observations around the clock to study the far ultraviolet spectra of faint astronomical objects and the polarization of ultraviolet light coming from hot stars and distant galaxies. Mission duration was 399 hours and 9 minutes.

STS-81 Atlantis (January 12 to January 22, 1997) was a 10-day mission, the fifth to dock with Russia’s Space Station Mir and the second to exchange U.S. astronauts. The mission also carried the Spacehab double module, providing additional middeck locker space for secondary experiments. In 5 days of docked operations, more than 3 tons of food, water, experiment equipment and samples were moved back and forth between the two spacecraft. Grunsfeld served as the flight engineer on this flight. Following 160 orbits of the Earth, the STS-81 mission concluded with a landing on Kennedy Space Center’s Runway 33, ending a 3.9-million-mile journey. Mission duration was 244 hours and 56 minutes.

STS-103 Discovery (December 19 to December 27, 1999) was an 8-day mission, during which the crew successfully installed new gyroscopes and scientific instruments and upgraded systems on the Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Enhancing HST scientific capabilities required three spacewalks (EVAs). Grunsfeld performed two spacewalks, totaling 16 hours and 23 minutes. The STS-103 mission was accomplished in 120 Earth orbits, traveling 3.2 million miles in 191 hours and 11 minutes.

STS-109 Columbia (March 1 to March 12, 2002) was the fourth HST servicing mission. The crew of STS-109 successfully upgraded the HST, installing a new digital camera, a cooling system for the infrared camera, new solar arrays and a new power system. HST servicing and upgrades were accomplished by four crewmembers during a total of five EVAs in 5 consecutive days. As Payload Commander on STS-109, Grunsfeld was in charge of the spacewalking activities and the Hubble payload. He also performed three spacewalks totaling 21 hours and 9 minutes, including the installation of the new Power Control Unit. STS-109 orbited the Earth 165 times and covered 3.9 million miles in over 262 hours.

STS-125 Atlantis (May 11 to May 24, 2009) was the fifth and final Hubble servicing mission. After 19 years in orbit, the telescope received a major renovation that included the installation of a new wide-field camera, a new ultraviolet telescope, new batteries, a guidance sensor, gyroscopes and other repairs. Grunsfeld served as the lead spacewalker in charge of the spacewalking and Hubble activities. He performed three of the five spacewalks on this flight, totaling 20 hours and 58 minutes. For the first time while in orbit, two scientific instruments were surgically repaired in the telescope. The STS-125 mission was accomplished in 12 days, 21 hours, 37 minutes and 09 seconds, traveling 5,276,000 miles in 197 Earth orbits.

Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-125 and the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on May 11, 2009 from Launch Complex-39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com
Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis on STS-125 and the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on May 11, 2009 from Launch Complex-39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about Hubble, NASA Mars rovers, Orion, SLS, ISS, Orbital ATK, ULA, SpaceX, Boeing, Space Taxis, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Apr 9/10: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs” and “Curiosity explores Mars” at NEAF (NorthEast Astronomy and Space Forum), 9 AM to 5 PM, Suffern, NY, Rockland Community College and Rockland Astronomy Club – http://rocklandastronomy.com/neaf.html

Apr 12: Hosting Dr. Jim Green, NASA, Director Planetary Science, for a Planetary sciences talk about “Ceres, Pluto and Planet X” at Princeton University; 7:30 PM, Amateur Astronomers Assoc of Princeton, Peyton Hall, Princeton, NJ – http://www.princetonastronomy.org/

Apr 17: “NASA and the Road to Mars Human Spaceflight programs”- 1:30 PM at Washington Crossing State Park, Nature Center, Titusville, NJ – http://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/parks/washcros.html

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and science chief Astronaut John Grunsfeld discuss NASA’s human spaceflight initiatives backdropped by the service module for the Orion crew capsule being assembled at the Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Time-lapse Video Documents Assembly of Webb Telescope Primary Mirror

This rare overhead shot of the James Webb Space Telescope shows the nine primary flight mirrors installed on the telescope structure in a clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credits: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn
This overhead shot of the James Webb Space Telescope shows part of the installation of the 18 primary flight mirrors onto the telescope structure in a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Chris Gunn
See time-lapse video below

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – A time-lapse video newly released by NASA documents the painstakingly complex assembly of the primary mirror at the heart of the biggest space telescope ever conceived by humankind – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Although the video, seen here, is short, it actually compresses over two and a half months of carefully choreographed and very impressive mirror installation process into less than 90 seconds. Continue reading “Time-lapse Video Documents Assembly of Webb Telescope Primary Mirror”

Obama Administration Proposes Smaller 2017 NASA Budget of $19 Billion with Big Exploration Cuts

NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA
NASA releases budget request for Fiscal Year 2017. Credit: NASA

The Obama Administration has announced its new Federal budget and is proposing to cut NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget to $19 billion by carving away significant funding for deep space exploration, whereas the overall US Federal budget actually increases to over $4.1 trillion.

This 2017 budget request amounts to almost $300 million less than the recently enacted NASA budget for 2016 and specifically stipulates deep funding cuts for deep space exploration programs involving both humans and robots, during President Obama’s final year in office.

The 2017 budget proposal would slash funding to the very programs designed to expand the frontiers of human knowledge and aimed at propelling humans outward to the Red Planet and robots to a Jovian moon that might be conducive to the formation of life.

Absent sufficient and reliable funding to keep NASA’s exploration endeavors on track, further launch delays are almost certainly inevitable – thereby fraying American leadership in space and science.

The administration is specifying big funding cuts to the ongoing development of NASA’s mammoth Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket and the state of the art Orion deep space crew capsule. They are the essential first ingredients to carry out NASA’s ambitious plans to send astronauts on deep space ‘Journey to Mars’ expeditions during the 2030s.

The overall Exploration Systems Development account for human deep space missions would be slashed about 18 percent from the 2016 funding level; from $4.0 Billion to only $3.3 Billion, or nearly $700 million.

SLS alone is reduced the most by $700 million from $2.0 billion to $1,31 billion, or a whopping 35 percent loss. Orion is reduced from $1.27 billion to $1.12 billion for a loss of some $150 million.

Make no mistake. These programs are already starved for funding and the Obama administration tried to force similar cuts to these programs in 2016, until Congress intervened.

Likewise, the Obama administration is proposing a draconian cut to the proposed robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that would surely delay the launch by at least another half a decade or more – to the late 2020s.

The Europa mission budget proposal is cut to only $49 million and the launch is postponed until the late 2020s. The mission received $175 million in funding in 2016 – amounting to a 72 percent reduction.

Furthermore there is no funding for a proposed lander and the launch vehicle changes from SLS to a far less powerful EELV – causing a year’s long increased travel time.

In order to maintain an SLS launch in approximately 2022, NASA would require a budget of about $150 million in 2017, said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, during a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters.

Why is Europa worth exploring? Because Europa likely possesses a subsurface ocean of water and is a prime target in the search for life!

Overall, NASA’s hugely successful Planetary Sciences division suffers a huge and nearly 10 percent cut of $141 million to $1.51 billion – despite undeniably groundbreaking scientific successes this past year at Pluto, Ceres, Mars and more!

Altogether NASA would receive $19.025 billion in FY 2017. This totals $260 million less than the $19.285 billion appropriated in FY 2016, and thus corresponds to a reduction of 1.5 percent.

By contrast, the overall US Federal Budget will increase nearly 5 percent to approximately $4.1 trillion. Simple math demonstrates that NASA is clearly not a high priority for the administration. NASA’s share of the Federal budget comes in at less than half a cent on the dollar.

Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Orion crew module pressure vessel for NASA’s Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) is unveiled for the first time on Feb. 3, 2016 after arrival at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida. It is secured for processing in a test stand called the birdcage in the high bay inside the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout (O&C) Building at KSC. Launch to the Moon is slated in 2018 atop the SLS rocket. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

NASA’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal was announced by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a televised ‘State of NASA’ address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia on Feb. 9.

Bolden did not dwell at all on the significant funding reductions for exploration.

“We are hitting our benchmarks with new exploration systems like the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion Crew Vehicle. A new consensus is emerging in the scientific and policy communities around our vision, timetable and plan for sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.”

And he outlined some milestones ahead.

“We’ll continue to make great progress on the Space Launch System – SLS–rocket and we’re preparing for a second series of engine tests,” said Bolden.

“At the Kennedy Space Center, our teams will outfit Orion’s crew module with the spacecraft’s heat-shielding thermal protection systems, avionics and subsystems like electrical power storage, cabin pressure control and flight software –to name just a few.”

NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration.   Credit: NASA/MSFC
NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) blasts off from launch pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center in this artist rendering showing a view of the liftoff of the Block 1 70-metric-ton (77-ton) crew vehicle configuration. Credit: NASA/MSFC

NASA plans to launch the first combined SLS/Orion on the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) in November 2018.

Indeed the Orion EM-1 pressure vessel just arrived at the Kennedy Space Center last week to completely install all the systems required for flight.

NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
NASA’s Orion EM-1 crew module pressure vessel arrived at the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility tucked inside NASA’s Super Guppy aircraft on Feb 1, 2016. The Super Guppy opens its hinged nose to unload cargo. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The launch date for the first crewed flight on EM-2 was targeted for 2021. But EM-2 is likely to slip to the right to 2023, due to insufficient funding.

Lack of funding will also force NASA to delay development of the far more capable and powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) to propel Orion on deep space missions. It will now not be available for the SLS/EM-2 launch as hoped.

The proposed huge budget cuts to SLS, Orion and Europa are certain to arose the ire of multiple members of Congress and space interest groups, who just successfully fought to increase NASA’s FY 2016 budget for these same programs in the recently passed 2016 omnibus spending bill.

“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, in a statement in response to the president’s budget proposal.

“President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby.”

“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

A "true color" image of the surface of Jupiter's moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
A “true color” image of the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa as seen by the Galileo spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute

“The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration … had hoped the request would reflect the priorities laid out for NASA in the FY16 Omnibus, for which there was broad support,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement.

“Unfortunately this was not the case. The Coalition is disappointed with the proposed reduction in funding below the FY16 Omnibus for NASA’s exploration programs. We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs.”

“This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space.”

Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Homecoming view of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft after returning to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 19, 2014 after successful blastoff on Dec. 5, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was maintained at planned levels to keep it on track for launch in 2018.

All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
All 18 primary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope are seen fully installed on the backplane structure by technicians using a robotic arm (center) inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

On Dec. 18, 2015, the US Congress passed and the president signed the 2016 omnibus spending bill which funds the US government through the remainder of the 2016 Fiscal Year.

As part of the omnibus bill, NASA’s approved budget amounted to nearly $19.3 Billion. That was an outstanding result and a remarkable turnaround to some long awaited good news from the decidedly negative outlook earlier in 2015.

The 2016 budget represented an increase of some $750 million above the Obama Administration’s proposed NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for Fiscal Year 2016, and an increase of more than $1.2 Billion over the enacted budget for FY 2015.

Under the proposed NASA budget for Fiscal Year 2017, the fictional exploits of ‘The Martian’ will never become reality.

And the hunt for extraterrestrial life on the icy moons of the outer solar system is postponed yet again.

Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars.    Credits: 20th Century Fox
Scene from ‘The Martian’ starring Matt Damon as NASA astronaut Mark Watney contemplating magnificent panoramic vista while stranded alone on Mars. Credits: 20th Century Fox

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

This global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015.   The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).  This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized.  Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size.  Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo
This global mosaic view of Pluto was created from the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft and released on Sept. 11, 2015. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). This mosaic was stitched from over two dozen raw images captured by the LORRI imager and colorized. Right side mosaic comprises twelve highest resolution views of Tombaugh Regio heart shaped feature and shows objects as small as 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) in size. Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/ Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com/Marco Di Lorenzo