All Primary Mirrors Fully Installed on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

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

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – All 18 of the primary mirrors have been fully installed onto the flight structure of what will become the biggest and most powerful space telescope ever built by humankind – NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

Completion of the huge and complex primary mirror marks a historic milestone and a banner start to 2016 for JWST, commencing the final assembly phase of the colossal observatory that will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos and our place it in.

After JWST launches in slightly less than three years time, the gargantuan observatory will significantly exceed the light gathering power of the currently most powerful space telescope ever sent to space – NASA’s Hubble!

Indeed JWST is the scientific successor to NASA’s 25 year old Hubble Space Telescope.

Technicians working inside the massive clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, have been toiling around the clock 24/7 to fully install all 18 primary mirror segments onto the mirror holding backplane structure. This author witnessed ongoing work in progress during installation of the last of the primary mirrors.

The engineers and scientists kept up the pace of their assembly work over the Christmas holidays and also during January’s record breaking monster Snowzilla storm, that dumped two feet or more of snow across the Eastern US from Washington DC to New York City and temporarily shut down virtually all travel.

The team used a specialized robotic arm functioning like a claw to meticulously latch on to, maneuver and attach each of the 18 primary mirrors onto the telescope structure.

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 and about the size of a coffee table.

Inside a massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland the James Webb Space Telescope team used a robotic am to install the last of the telescope's 18 mirrors onto the telescope structure.  Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
Inside a massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland the James Webb Space Telescope team used a robotic am to install the last of the telescope’s 18 mirrors onto the telescope structure. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

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 telescopes mirror assembly is comprised of three segments – the main central segment holding 12 mirrors and a pair of foldable outer wing-like segments that hold three mirrors each.

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

One by one the team populated the telescope structure with the primary mirrors at a pace of roughly two per week since the installations started some two and a half months ago.

During the installation process each of the gold coated primary mirrors was covered with a black colored cover to protect them from optical contamination.

The mirror covers will be removed over the summer for testing purposes, said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager at Goddard, told Universe Today.

The two wings were unfolded from their stowed-for-launch configuration to the “deployed” configuration to carry out the mirror installation. They will be folded back over into launch configuration for eventual placement inside the payload fairing of the Ariane V ECA booster rocket that will launch JWST three years from now.

Up close view of primary mirrors installed on mirror holding structure of  NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope by technicians working inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of primary mirrors installed on mirror holding structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope by technicians working inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

“Scientists and engineers have been working tirelessly to install these incredible, nearly perfect mirrors that will focus light from previously hidden realms of planetary atmospheres, star forming regions and the very beginnings of the Universe,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, in a statement.

“With the mirrors finally complete, we are one step closer to the audacious observations that will unravel the mysteries of the Universe.”

The mirrors were built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., in Boulder, Colorado. Ball is the principal subcontractor to Northrop Grumman for the optical technology and lightweight mirror system. The installation of the mirrors onto the telescope structure is performed by Harris Corporation of Rochester, New York. Harris Corporation leads integration and testing for the telescope, according to NASA.

In this rare view, the James Webb Space Telescope's 18 mirrors are seen fully installed on the James Webb Space Telescope structure at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
In this rare view, the James Webb Space Telescope’s 18 mirrors are seen fully installed on the James Webb Space Telescope structure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Among the next construction steps are installation of the aft optics assembly and the secondary mirror.

After that the team will install what’s known as the ‘heart of the telescope’ – the Integrated Science Instrument Module ISIM). Then comes acoustic and vibration tests throughout this year. Eventually the finished assembly will be shipped to Johnson Space Center in Houston “for an intensive cryogenic optical test to ensure everything is working properly,” say officials.

Up close view of JWST secondary mirror yet to be installed on tripod of telescope structure inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of JWST secondary mirror yet to be installed on tripod of telescope structure inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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.

“JWST has the capability to look back towards the very first objects that formed after the Big Bang,” said Dr. John Mather, NASA’s Nobel Prize Winning scientist, in a recent exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA Goddard.

Technician monitors installation of last of 18 primary mirrors onto structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Secondary mirror holding tripod at right, top.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Technician monitors installation of last of 18 primary mirrors onto structure of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope inside the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Secondary mirror holding tripod at right, top. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Watch this space for my ongoing reports on JWST mirrors, 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

Massive Ariane 5 To Launch Giant NextGen Telescope In Dynamic Deployment To L2

The Ariane5 lifting off from Kourou in French Guiana. Image: ESA/Arianespace.

The Ariane 5 rocket is a workhorse for delivering satellites and other payloads into orbit, but fitting the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) inside one is pushing the boundaries of the Ariane 5’s capabilities, and advancing our design of space observatories at the same time.

The Ariane 5 is the most modern design in the ESA’s Ariane rocket series. It’s responsible for delivering things like Rosetta, the Herschel Space Observatory, and the Planck Observatory into space. The ESA is supplying an Ariane 5 to the JWST mission, and with the planned launch date for that mission less than three years away, it’s a good time to check in with the Ariane 5 and the JWST.

The Ariane 5 has a long track record of success, often carrying multiple satellites into orbit in a single launch. Here’s its most recent launch, on January 27th from the ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana. This is Ariane 5’s 70th successful launch in a row.

But launching satellites into orbit, though still an amazing achievement, is becoming old hat for rockets. 70 successful launches in a row tells us that. The Ariane 5 can even launch multiple satellites in one mission. But launching the James Webb will be Ariane’s biggest challenge.

The thing about satellites is, they’re actually getting smaller, in many cases. But the JWST is huge, at least in terms of dimensions. The mass of the JWST—6,500 kg (14,300 lb)—is just within the limits of the Ariane 5. The real trick was designing and building the JWST so that it could fit into the cylindrical space atop an Ariane 5, and then “unfold” into its final shape after separation from the rocket. This video shows how the JWST will deploy itself.

The JWST is like a big, weird looking beetle. Its gold-coated, segmented mirror system looks like multi-faceted insect eyes. Its tennis-court sized heat shield is like an insect’s shell. Or something. Cramming all those pieces, folded up, into the nose of the Ariane 5 rocket is a real challenge.

Because the JWST will live out its 10-year (hopefully) mission at L2, rather than in orbit around Earth, it requires this huge shield to protect itself from the sun. The instruments on the James Webb have to be kept cool in order to function properly. The only way to achieve this is to have its heat shield folded up inside the rocket for launch, then unfolded later. That’s a very tricky maneuver.

But there’s more.

The heart of the James Webb is its segmented mirror system. This group of 18 gold-coated, beryllium mirrors also has to be folded up to fit into the Ariane 5, and then unfolded once it’s separated from the rocket. This is a lot trickier than launching things like the Hubble, which was deployed from the space shuttle.

Something else makes all this folding and unfolding very tricky. The Hubble, which was James Webb’s predecessor, is in orbit around Earth. That means that astronauts on Shuttle missions have been able to repair and service the Hubble. But the James Webb will be way out there at L2, so it can’t be serviced in any way. We have one chance to get it right.

Right now, the James Webb is still under construction in the “Clean Room” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre. A precision robotic arm system is carefully mounting Webb’s 18 mirrors.

A robotic arm positions one of James Webb's 18 mirrors. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn
A robotic arm positions one of James Webb’s 18 mirrors. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

There’s still over two years until the October 2018 launch date, and there’s a lot of testing and assembly work going on until then. We’ll be paying close attention not only to see if the launch goes as planned, but also to see if the James Webb—the weird looking beetle—can successfully complete its metamorphosis.

James Webb Space Telescope Mirror Installation Reaches Halfway Point

As history closes in on 2015, assembly of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reached a historic milestone as the installation of the primary mirrors onto the telescope structure reached the halfway point to completion and marks the final assembly phase of the colossal observatory.

Technicians have just installed the ninth of 18 primary flight mirrors onto the mirror holding backplane structure at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Continue reading “James Webb Space Telescope Mirror Installation Reaches Halfway Point”

First Mirror Installed on NASA’s Webb Telescope, Final Assembly Phase Starts

The James Webb Space Telescope team successfully installed the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.  Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
The James Webb Space Telescope team successfully installed the first flight mirror onto the telescope structure at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
Story/photos updated

After years of construction, the first of 18 primary flight mirrors has been installed onto NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, signifying the start of the final assembly phase for the mammoth observatory that will eventually become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

The milestone first mirror installation was achieved this week just ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday as the engineering team, working inside the massive clean room at NASA Goddard, used a robotic arm to precisely lift and lower the gold coated mirror into place on the observatory’s critical mirror holding backplane assembly.

Each of the 18 hexagonal-shaped primary mirror segments Continue reading “First Mirror Installed on NASA’s Webb Telescope, Final Assembly Phase Starts”

NASA vs. Cigarettes: A Numbers Game

A photo of the full moon, taken from Apollo 11 on its way home to Earth, from about 18,520 km (10,000 nm) away. Credit: NASA

People often criticize the amount of money spent on space exploration. Sometimes it’s well-meaning friends and family who say that that money is wasted, and would be better spent on solving problems here on Earth. In fact, that’s a whole cultural meme. You see it played out over and over in the comments section whenever mainstream media covers a space story.

While solving problems here on Earth is noble, and the right thing to do, it’s worth pointing out that the premier space exploration body on Earth, NASA, actually has a tiny budget. When you compare NASA’s budget to what people spend on cigarettes, NASA looks pretty good.

Ignoring for the moment the fact that we don’t know how to solve all the problems here on Earth, let’s look at NASA’s budget over the years, and compare it to something that is truly a waste of money: cigarettes and tobacco.

NASA is over 50 years old. In its first year, its budget was $89 million. (That’s about $732 million in today’s dollars.) In that same year, Americans spent about $6 billion on cigarettes and tobacco.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA
Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. Image Credit: NASA

From 1969 to 1972, NASA’s Apollo Program landed 12 men on the Moon. They won the Space Race and established a moment that will echo through the ages, no matter what else humanity does: the first human footsteps anywhere other than Earth. In those four years, NASA’s combined budget was $14.8 billion. In that same time period, Americans spent over twice as much—$32 billion—on smoking.

STS-1 Columbia on the launch pad. Image Credit: NASA
STS-1 Columbia on the launch pad. Image Credit: NASA

In 1981, NASA launched its first space shuttle, the Columbia (STS-1). NASA’s budget that year was $5.5 billion. That same year, the American population spent about $17.4 billion on tobacco. That’s three times NASA’s budget. How many more shuttle flights could there have been? How much more science?

The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It's about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope in 1997, after its first servicing mission. It’s about 552 km (343m) above Earth. Image: NASA

In 1990, NASA launched the Hubble Space Telescope into Low Earth Orbit (LEO.) The Hubble has been called the most successful science project in history, and Universe Today readers probably don’t need to be told why. The Hubble is responsible for a laundry list of discoveries and observations, and has engaged millions of people around the world in space science and discovery. In that year, NASA had a budget of $12.4 billion. And smoking? In 1990, Americans smoked their way through $26.5 billion of tobacco.

MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech
MSL Curiosity selfie on the surface of Mars. Image: NASA/JPL/Cal-Tech.

In 2012, NASA had a budget of $16.8 billion. In that year, NASA successfully landed the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity on Mars, at a cost of $2.5 billion. Also that year, American lungs processed $44 billion worth of tobacco. That’s the equivalent of 17 Curiosity rovers!

There was an enormous scientific debate around where Curiosity should land, in order to maximize the science. Scientific teams competed to have their site chosen, and eventually the Gale Crater was selected as the most promising site. Gale is a meteor crater, and was chosen because it shows signs of running water, as well as evidence of layered geology including clays and minerals.

Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)
Sunrise at Gale Crater on Mars. Gale is at center top with the mound in the middle, called Mt. Sharp (Aeolis Mons.)

But other equally tantalizing sites were in contention, including Holden Crater, where a massive and catastrophic flood took place, and where ancient sediments lie exposed on the floor of the crater, ready for study. Or Mawrth Vallis, another site that suffered a massive flood, which exposed layers of clay minerals formed in the presence of water. With the money spent on tobacco in 2012 ($44 billion!) we could have had a top ten list of landing sites on Mars, and put a rover at each one.

Think of all that science.

One of the JWST's gold-coated mirrors. Not even launched yet, and the golden mirrors are already iconic. Image Credit: NASA/Drew Noel
One of the JWST’s gold-coated mirrors. Not even launched yet, and the golden mirrors are already iconic. Image Credit: NASA/Drew Noel

NASA’s budget is always a source of controversy, and that’s certainly true of another of NASA’s big projects: The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST.) Space enthusiasts are eagerly awaiting the launch of the JWST, planned for October 2018. The JWST will take up residence at the second Lagrange Point (L2,) where it will spend 5-10 years studying the formation of galaxies, stars, and planetary systems from the Big Bang until now. It will also investigate the potential for life in other solar systems.

The L2 (Lagrange 2) point in space. Image Credit: NASA
The L2 (Lagrange 2) point in space. Image Credit: NASA

Initially the JWST’s cost was set at $1.6 billion and it was supposed to launch in 2011. But now it’s set for October 2018, and its cost has grown to $8.8 billion. It sounds outrageous, almost $9 billion for a space telescope, and Congress considered scrapping the entire project. But what’s even more outrageous is that Americans are projected to spend over $50 billion on tobacco in 2018.

When people in the future look back at NASA and what it was able to accomplish in the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, they’ll think two things: First, they’ll think how amazing it was that NASA did what it did. The Moon landings, the Shuttle program, the Hubble, Curiosity, and the James Webb.

Then, they’ll be saddened by how much more could’ve been done collectively, if so much money hadn’t been wasted on something as deadly as smoking.

(Note: All amounts are US Dollars.)

 

NASA Webb Telescope Construction Leaps Forward with Delivery of Mirror Holding Backbone Flight Structure

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
Story/imagery updated[/caption]

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – The construction pace for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) took a major leap forward with delivery of the actual flight structure that serves as the observatory’s critical mirror holding backbone – to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and observed by Universe Today.

“We are in good shape with the James Webb Space Telescope,” said Dr. John Mather, NASA’s Nobel Prize Winning scientist, in an exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA Goddard during a visit to the flight structure – shown in my photos herein. Note: Read an Italian language version of this story – here at Alive Universe

And the mammoth $8.6 Billion Webb telescope has mammoth scientific objectives as the scientific successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (HST) – now celebrating its 25th anniversary in Earth orbit.

“JWST has the capability to look back towards the very first objects that formed after the Big Bang,” Mather told Universe Today.

How is that possible?

“James Webb has a much bigger mirror than Hubble. So its resolution is much better,” said astronaut and NASA science chief John Grunsfeld, during an exclusive interview at NASA Goddard. Grunsfeld flew on a trio of Hubble servicing missions aboard the Space Shuttle, including the final one during STS-125 in 2009.

“JWST can look back further in time, and a greater distance than Hubble, so we can see those first stars and galaxies formed in the Universe.”

These discoveries are only possible with Webb, which will become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space when it launches in 2018.

Up close view of actual side wing backplane of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that will hold 3 of the observatory’s 18 primary mirrors, as technicians work inside cleanroom at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.  Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Up close view of actual side wing backplane of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) that will hold 3 of the observatory’s 18 primary mirrors, as technicians work inside cleanroom at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The massive JWST flight structure unit includes the “backplane assembly” that clasps in place all of the telescopes primary and secondary mirrors, as well as its ISIM science module loaded with the observatory’s quartet of state-of-the-art research instruments.

“The backplane looks really great,” Grunsfeld told me.

Numerous NASA centers and aerospace companies are involved in building the observatory and its backplane structure holding the mirrors that will search back some 13.4 billion years.

“The backplane structure just arrived in late August from Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California,” said Sandra Irish, JWST lead structural engineer during an interview with Universe Today at the NASA Goddard cleanroom facility.

“This is the actual flight hardware.”

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

The purpose of JWST’s backplane assembly is to hold the telescopes 18 segment, 21-foot (6.5-meter) diameter primary mirror nearly motionless while floating in the utterly frigid space environment, thereby enabling the observatory to peer out into deep space for precise science gathering measurements never before possible.

The massive telescope structure “includes the primary mirror backplane assembly; the main backplane support fixture; and the deployable tower structure that lifts the telescope off of the spacecraft. The three arms at the top come together into a ring where the secondary mirror will reside,” say officials.

The backplane traveled a long and winding road before arriving at Goddard.

“The backplane structure was designed and built at Orbital ATK with NASA oversight,” Irish explained. The assembly work was done at the firms facilities in Magna, Utah.

“Then it was sent to Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California for static testing. Then it came here to Goddard. Orbital ATK also built the composite tubes for the ISIM science module structure.”

The observatory’s complete flight structure measures about 26 feet (nearly 8 meters) from its base to the tip of the tripod arms and mirror mount holding the round secondary mirror.

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom.  Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom. Credit: NASA/ESA

The flight structure and backplane assembly arrived at Goddard in its stowed-for-launch configuration after being flown cross country from California.

“It is here for the installation of all the mirrors to build up the entire telescope assembly here at Goddard. It will be fully tested here before it is delivered to the Johnson Space Center in Houston and then back to California,” Irish elaborated.

The overall assembly is currently attached to a pair of large yellow and white fixtures that firmly secure the flight unit, to stand it upright and rotate as needed, as it undergoes acceptance testing by engineers and technicians before commencement of the next big step – the crucial mirror installation that starts soon inside the world’s largest cleanroom at NASA Goddard.

Overhead cranes are also used to maneuver the observatory structure as engineers inspect and test the unit.

But several weeks of preparatory work are in progress before the painstakingly precise mirror installation can begin under the most pristine cleanroom operating conditions.

“Right now the technicians are installing harnesses that we need to mount all over the structure,” Irish told me.

“These harnesses will go to our electronic systems and the mirrors in order to monitor their actuation on orbit. So that’s done first.”

What is the construction sequence at Goddard for the installation of the mirrors and science instruments and what comes next?

“This fall we will be installing every mirror, starting around late October/early November. Then next April 2016 we will install the ISIM science module inside the backplane structure.”

“The ISIM mounts all four of the telescope science instrument. So the mirrors go on first, then the ISIM gets installed and then it will really be the telescope structure.” ISIM carries some 7,500 pounds (2400 kg) of telescope optics and instruments.

“Then starting about next July/August 2016 we start the environmental testing.”

The actual flight mirror backplane is comprised of three segments – the main central segment and a pair of outer wing-like parts holding three mirrors each. They will be unfolded from the stowed-for-launch configuration to the “deployed” configuration to carry out the mirror installation. Then be folded back over into launch configuration for eventual placement inside the payload fairing of the Ariane V ECA booster rocket.

The telescope will launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The telescopes primary and secondary flight mirrors have already arrived at Goddard.

The mirrors must remained precisely aligned and nearly motionless in order for JWST to successfully carry out science investigations. While operating at extraordinarily cold temperatures between -406 and -343 degrees Fahrenheit the backplane must not move more than 38 nanometers, approximately 1/1,000 the diameter of a human hair.

To account for the tiniest of errors and enhance science, each of the primary mirrors is equipped with actuators for minute adjustments.

“A beautiful advantage of Webb that’s different from Hubble is the fact that we do have actuation [capability] of every single one of our mirrors. So if we are off by just a little bit on either our calculations or from misalignment from launch or the zero gravity release, we can do some fine adjustments on orbit.”

“We can adjust every mirror within 50 nanometers.”

“That’s important because we can’t send astronauts to fix our telescope. We just can’t.”

“The telescope is a million miles away.”

NASA’s team at Goddard has already practiced mirror installation because there are no second chances.

“We only have one shot to get this right!” Irish emphasized.

Watch for more on the mirror installation in my upcoming story.

JWST is the successor to the 25 year old Hubble Space Telescope and will become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

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.

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

NASA has overall responsibility and Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST.

“The telescope is on schedule for its launch in 2018 in October,” Mather told me.

And the payoff from JWST will be monumental!

“On everything from nearby planets to the most distant universe, James Webb will transform our view of the Universe,” Grunsfeld beams.

Watch for more on JWST construction and mirror installation in part 2 soon.

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

Ken Kremer

A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
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

More livable than Earth? New index sizes up the habitability of alien exoplanets

Image: James Webb Space Telescope

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory have devised a new habitability index for judging how suitable alien planets might be for life, and the top prospects on their list are an Earthlike world called Kepler-442b and a yet-to-be confirmed planet known as KOI 3456.02.

Those worlds both score higher than our own planet on the index: 0.955 for KOI 3456.02 and 0.836 for Kepler-442b, compared with 0.829 for Earth and 0.422 for Mars. The point of the exercise is to help scientists prioritize future targets for close-ups from NASA’s yet-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope and other instruments.

Astronomers have detected more than 1,000 confirmed planets and almost 5,000 candidates beyond our solar system, with most of them found by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope. More than 100 of those have been characterized as potentially habitable, and hundreds more are thought to be waiting in the wings. The Webb telescope is expected to start taking a closer look soon after its scheduled launch in 2018.

“Basically, we’ve devised a way to take all the observational data that are available and develop a prioritization scheme,” UW astronomer Rory Barnes said Monday in a news release, “so that as we move into a time when there are hundreds of targets available, we might be able to say, ‘OK, that’s the one we want to start with.'”

This isn’t the first habitability index to be devised. Traditionally, astronomers focus on how close a particular exoplanet’s mass is to Earth’s, and whether its orbit is in a “Goldilocks zone” where water could exist in liquid form. But in a paper accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal, Barnes and his colleagues say their scheme includes other factors such as a planet’s estimated rockiness and the eccentricity of its orbit.

The formula could be tweaked even further in the future. “The power of the habitability index will grow as we learn more about exoplanets from both observations and theory,” said study co-author Victoria Meadows.

Barnes, Meadows and UW research assistant Nicole Evans are the authors of “Comparative Habitability of Transiting Exoplanets.” The study was funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Obama Administration Proposes $18.5 Billion Budget for NASA – Bolden

The Obama Administration today (Feb. 2) proposed a NASA budget allocation of $18.5 Billion for the new Fiscal Year 2016, which amounts to a half-billion dollar increase over the enacted budget for FY 2015, and keeps the key manned capsule and heavy lift rocket programs on track to launch humans to deep space in the next decade and significantly supplements the commercial crew initiative to send our astronauts to low Earth orbit and the space station later this decade.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden formally announced the rollout of NASA’s FY 2016 budget request today during a “state of the agency” address at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC), back dropped by the three vehicles at the core of the agency’s human spaceflight exploration strategy; Orion, the Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon.

“To further advance these plans and keep on moving forward on our journey to Mars, President Obama today is proposing an FY 2016 budget of $18.5 billion for NASA, building on the significant investments the administration has made in America’s space program over the past six years,” Administrator Bolden said to NASA workers and the media gathered at the KSC facility where Orion is being manufactured.

“These vehicles are not things just on paper anymore! This is tangible evidence of what you [NASA] have been doing these past few years.”

In the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden delivers a “state of the agency” address on Feb 2, 2015 at NASA's televised fiscal year 2016 budget rollout event.   Photo credit: NASA/Gianni Woods
In the Neil Armstrong Operations and Checkout Building high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden delivers a “state of the agency” address on Feb 2, 2015 at NASA’s televised fiscal year 2016 budget rollout event. Photo credit: NASA/Gianni Woods

Bolden said the $18.5 Billion budget request will enable the continuation of core elements of NASA’s main programs including first launch of the new commercial crew vehicles to orbit in 2017, maintaining the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket to further NASA’s initiative to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s, extending the International Space Station (ISS) into the next decade, and launching the James Webb Space Telescope in 2018. JWST is the long awaited successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.

“NASA is firmly on a journey to Mars. Make no mistake, this journey will help guide and define our generation.”

Funding is also provided to enable the manned Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by around 2025, to continue development of the next Mars rover, and to continue formulation studies of a robotic mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa.

“That’s a half billion-dollar increase over last year’s enacted budget, and it is a clear vote of confidence in you – the employees of NASA – and the ambitious exploration program you are executing,” said Bolden.

Overall the additional $500 million for FY 2016 translates to a 2.7% increase over FY 2015. That compares to about a 6.4% proposed boost for the overall US Federal Budget amounting to $4 Trillion.

The Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon V2 will restore the US capability to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

In September 2014, Bolden announced the selections of Boeing and SpaceX to continue development and certification of their proposed spaceships under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) and Launch America initiative started back in 2010.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (left) announces the winners of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program development effort to build America’s next human spaceships launching from Florida to the International Space Station. Speaking from Kennedy’s Press Site, Bolden announced the contract award to Boeing and SpaceX to complete the design of the CST-100 and Crew Dragon spacecraft. Former astronaut Bob Cabana, center, director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Kathy Lueders, manager of the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, and former International Space Station Commander Mike Fincke also took part in the announcement. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, all NASA astronauts have been totally dependent on Russia and their Soyuz capsule as the sole source provider for seats to the ISS.

“The commercial crew vehicles are absolutely critical to our journey to Mars, absolutely critical. SpaceX and Boeing have set up operations here on the Space Coast, bringing jobs, energy and excitement about the future with them. They will increase crew safety and drive down costs.”

Meet Dragon V2 - SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX's new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX
Meet Dragon V2 – SpaceX CEO Elon pulls the curtain off manned Dragon V2 on May 29, 2014 for worldwide unveiling of SpaceX’s new astronaut transporter for NASA. Credit: SpaceX

CCP gets a hefty and needed increase from $805 Million in FY 2015 to $1.244 Billion in FY 2016.

To date the Congress has not fully funded the Administration’s CCP funding requests, since its inception in 2010.

The significant budget slashes amounting to 50% or more by Congress, have forced NASA to delay the first commercial crew flights of the private ‘space taxis’ from 2015 to 2017.

As a result, NASA has also been forced to continue paying the Russians for crew flights aboard the Soyuz that now cost over $70 million each under the latest contract signed with Roscosmos, the Russian Federal Space Agency.

Boeing CST-100 capsule interior up close.  Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
Boeing CST-100 capsule interior up close. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

Bolden has repeatedly stated that NASA’s overriding goal is to send astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.

To accomplish the ‘Journey to Mars’ NASA is developing the Orion deep space crew capsule and mammoth SLS rocket.

However, both programs had their budgets cut in the FY 2016 proposal compared to FY 2015. The 2015 combined total of $3.245 Billion is reduced in 2016 to $2.863 Billion, or over 10%.

The first test flight of an unmanned Orion atop the SLS is now slated for liftoff on Nov. 2018, following NASA’s announcement of a launch delay from the prior target of December 2017.

Since the Journey to Mars goal is already underfunded, significant cuts will hinder progress.

Orion just completed its nearly flawless maiden unmanned test flight in December 2014 on the Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission.

NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014.   Launch pad remote camera view.   Credit: Ken Kremer - kenkremer.com
NASA’s first Orion spacecraft blasts off at 7:05 a.m. atop United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy Booster at Space Launch Complex 37 (SLC-37) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Dec. 5, 2014. Launch pad remote camera view. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

There are some losers in the new budget as well.

Rather incomprehensibly funding for the long lived Opportunity Mars Exploration Rover is zeroed out in 2016.

This comes despite the fact that the renowned robot just reached the summit of a Martian mountain at Cape Tribulation and is now less than 200 meters from a science goldmine of water altered minerals.

NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater's western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge.  This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized.  Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com
NASA’s Opportunity Mars rover captures sweeping panoramic vista near the ridgeline of 22 km (14 mi) wide Endeavour Crater’s western rim. The center is southeastward and the distant rim is visible in the center. An outcrop area targeted for the rover to study is at right of ridge. This navcam panorama was stitched from images taken on May 10, 2014 (Sol 3659) and colorized. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cornell/Marco Di Lorenzo/Ken Kremer-kenkremer.com

Funding for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is also zeroed out in FY 2016.

Both missions continue to function quite well with very valuable science returns. They were also zeroed out in FY 2015 but received continued funding after a senior level science review.

So their ultimate fate is unknown at this time.

Overall, Bolden was very upbeat about NASA’s future.

“I can unequivocally say that the state of NASA is strong,” Bolden said.

He concluded his remarks saying:

“Because of the dedication and determination of each and every one of you in our NASA Family, America’s space program is not just alive, it is thriving! Together with our commercial and international partners, academia and entrepreneurs, we’re launching the future. With the continued support of the Administration, the Congress and the American people, we’ll all get there together.”

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

Ken Kremer

Defining Life II: Metabolism and Evolution as clues to Extraterrestrial Life

In the movie “Avatar”, we could tell at a glance that the alien moon Pandora was teeming with alien life. Here on Earth though, the most abundant life is not the plants and animals that we are familiar with. The most abundant life is simple and microscopic. There are 50 million bacterial organisms in a single gram of soil, and the world wide bacterial biomass exceeds that of all plants and animals. Microbes can grow in extreme environments of temperature, salinity, acidity, radiation, and pressure. The most likely form in which we will encounter life elsewhere in our solar system is microbial.

Astrobiologists need strategies for inferring the presence of alien microbial life or its fossilized remains. They need strategies for inferring the presence of alien life on the distant planets of other stars, which are too far away to explore with spacecraft in the foreseeable future. To do these things, they long for a definition of life, that would make it possible to reliably distinguish life from non-life.

Unfortunately, as we saw in the first installment of this series, despite enormous growth in our knowledge of living things, philosophers and scientists have been unable to produce such a definition. Astrobiologists get by as best they can with definitions that are partial, and that have exceptions. Their search is geared to the features of life on Earth, the only life we currently know.

In the first installment, we saw how the composition of terrestrial life influences the search for extraterrestrial life. Astrobiologists search for environments that once contained or currently contain liquid water, and that contain complex molecules based on carbon. Many scientists, however, view the essential features of life as having to do with its capacities instead of its composition.

In 1994, a NASA committee adopted a definition of life as a “self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution”, based on a suggestion by Carl Sagan. This definition contains two features, metabolism and evolution, that are typically mentioned in definitions of life.

Metabolism is the set of chemical processes by which living things actively use energy to maintain themselves, grow, and develop. According to the second law of thermodynamics, a system that doesn’t interact with its external environment will become more disorganized and uniform with time. Living things build and maintain their improbable, highly organized state because they harness sources of energy in their external environment to power their metabolism.

Plants and some bacteria use the energy of sunlight to manufacture larger organic molecules out of simpler subunits. These molecules store chemical energy that can later be extracted by other chemical reactions to power their metabolism. Animals and some bacteria consume plants or other animals as food. They break down complex organic molecules in their food into simpler ones, to extract their stored chemical energy. Some bacteria can use the energy contained in chemicals derived from non-living sources in the process of chemosynthesis.

In a 2014 article in Astrobiology, Lucas John Mix, a Harvard evolutionary biologist, referred to the metabolic definition of life as Haldane Life after the pioneering physiologist J. B. S. Haldane. The Haldane life definition has its problems. Tornadoes and vorticies like Jupiter’s Great Red Spot use environmental energy to sustain their orderly structure, but aren’t alive. Fire uses energy from its environment to sustain itself and grow, but isn’t alive either.

Despite its shortcomings, astrobiologists have used Haldane definition to devise experiments. The Viking Mars landers made the only attempt so far to directly test for extraterrestrial life, by detecting the supposed metabolic activities of Martian microbes. They assumed that Martian metabolism is chemically similar to its terrestrial counterpart.

One experiment sought to detect the metabolic breakdown of nutrients into simpler molecules to extract their energy. A second aimed to detect oxygen as a waste product of photosynthesis. A third tried to show the manufacture of complex organic molecules out of simpler subunits, which also occurs during photosynthesis. All three experiments seemed to give positive results, but many researchers believe that the detailed findings can be explained without biology, by chemical oxidizing agents in the soil.

Viking Lander
In 1976, two Viking spacecraft landed on Mars. The image is of a model of the Viking lander, along with astronomer and pioneering astrobiologist Carl Sagan. Each lander was equipped with life detection experiments designed to detect life based on its metabolic activities. These activities were assumed to be chemically similar to those of Earthly organisms. The three experiments included: 1) The labeled release experiment, in which radioactively labeled organic nutrients were added to Martian soil. If organisms were present, it was assumed that their metabolism would involve breaking down the nutrients for their energy content and releasing labeled carbon dioxide as a waste product. 2) The gas exchange experiment, in which Martian soil was provided with nutrients and light and monitored for the release of oxygen. On Earth, organisms that capture the energy of sunlight through the process of photosynthesis, like plants and some bacteria, release oxygen as a waste product. 3) The pyrolytic release experiment, in which Martian soil was placed in a chamber with radioactively labeled carbon dioxide. If there were organisms in the soil that photosynthesized like those on Earth, their metabolic processes would take up the gas and use the energy of sunlight to manufacture more complex organic molecules. Radioactive carbon would be given off when those more complex molecules were broken down by heating the sample. All three experiments produced what seemed like positive results. However, most scientists rejected this interpretation because the details of many of the results could be explained by supposing that there were chemical oxidizing agents in the soil instead of life, and because Viking failed to detect organic materials in Martian soil. This interpretation, especially for the labeled release experiment, remains controversial to this day and may need to be revisited based on recent findings.
Credits: NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech

Some of the Viking results remain controversial to this day. At the time, many researchers felt that the failure to find organic materials in Martian soil ruled out a biological interpretation of the metabolic results. The more recent finding that Martian soil actually does contain organic molecules that might have been destroyed by perchlorates during the Viking analysis, and that liquid water was once abundant on the surface of Mars lend new plausibility to the claim that Viking may have actually succeeded in detecting life. By themselves, though, the Viking results didn’t prove that life exists on Mars nor rule it out.

The metabolic activities of life may also leave their mark on the composition of planetary atmospheres. In 2003, the European Mars Express spacecraft detected traces of methane in the Martian atmosphere. In December 2014, a team of NASA scientists reported that the Curiosity Mars rover had confirmed this finding by detected atmospheric methane from the Martian surface.

Most of the methane in Earth’s atmosphere is released by living organisms or their remains. Subterranean bacterial ecosystems that use chemosynthesis as a source of energy are common, and they produce methane as a metabolic waste product. Unfortunately, there are also non-biological geochemical processes that can produce methane. So, once more, Martian methane is frustratingly ambiguous as a sign of life.

Extrasolar planets orbiting other stars are far too distant to visit with spacecraft in the foreseeable future. Astrobiologists still hope to use the Haldane definition to search for life on them. With near future space telescopes, astronomers hope to learn the composition of the atmospheres of these planets by analyzing the spectrum of light wavelengths reflected or transmitted by their atmospheres. The James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018, will be the first to be useful in this project. Astrobiologists want to search for atmospheric biomarkers; gases that are metabolic waste products of living organisms.

Once more, this quest is guided by the only example of a life-bearing planet we currently have; Earth. About 21% of our home planet’s atmosphere is oxygen. This is surprising because oxygen is a highly reactive gas that tends to enter into chemical combinations with other substances. Free oxygen should quickly vanish from our air. It remains present because the loss is constantly being replaced by plants and bacteria that release it as a metabolic waste product of photosynthesis.

Traces of methane are present in Earth’s atmosphere because of chemosynthetic bacteria. Since methane and oxygen react with one another, neither would stay around for long unless living organisms were constantly replenishing the supply. Earth’s atmosphere also contains traces of other gases that are metabolic byproducts.

In general, living things use energy to maintain Earth’s atmosphere in a state far from the thermodynamic equilibrium it would reach without life. Astrobiologists would suspect any planet with an atmosphere in a similar state of harboring life. But, as for the other cases, it would be hard to completely rule out non-biological possibilities.

Besides metabolism, the NASA committee identified evolution as a fundamental ability of living things. For an evolutionary process to occur there must be a group of systems, where each one is capable of reliably reproducing itself. Despite the general reliability of reproduction, there must also be occasional random copying errors in the reproductive process so that the systems come to have differing traits. Finally, the systems must differ in their ability to survive and reproduce based on the benefits or liabilities of their distinctive traits in their environment. When this process is repeated over and over again down the generations, the traits of the systems will become better adapted to their environment. Very complex traits can sometimes evolve in a step-by-step fashion.

Mix named this the Darwin life definition, after the nineteenth century naturalist Charles Darwin, who formulated the theory of evolution. Like the Haldane definition, the Darwin life definition has important shortcomings. It has trouble including everything that we might think of as alive. Mules, for example, can’t reproduce, and so, by this definition, don’t count as being alive.

Despite such shortcomings, the Darwin life definition is critically important, both for scientists studying the origin of life and astrobiologists. The modern version of Darwin’s theory can explain how diverse and complex forms of life can evolve from some initial simple form. A theory of the origin of life is needed to explain how the initial simple form acquired the capacity to evolve in the first place.

The chemical systems or life forms found on other planets or moons in our solar system might be so simple that they are close to the boundary between life and non-life that the Darwin definition establishes. The definition might turn out to be vital to astrobiologists trying to decide whether a chemical system they have found really qualifies as a life form. Biologists still don’t know how life originated. If astrobiologists can find systems near the Darwin boundary, their findings may be pivotally important to understanding the origin of life.

Can astrobiologists use the Darwin definition to find and study extraterrestrial life? It’s unlikely that a visiting spacecraft could detect to process of evolution itself. But, it might be capable of detecting the molecular structures that living organisms need in order to take part in an evolutionary process. Philosopher Mark Bedau has proposed that a minimal system capable of undergoing evolution would need to have three things: 1) a chemical metabolic process, 2) a container, like a cell membrane, to establish the boundaries of the system, and 3) a chemical “program” capable of directing the metabolic activities.

Here on Earth, the chemical program is based on the genetic molecule DNA. Many origin-of-life theorists think that the genetic molecule of the earliest terrestrial life forms may have been the simpler molecule ribonucleic acid (RNA). The genetic program is important to an evolutionary process because it makes the reproductive copying process stable, with only occasional errors.

Both DNA and RNA are biopolymers; long chainlike molecules with many repeating subunits. The specific sequence of nucleotide base subunits in these molecules encodes the genetic information they carry. So that the molecule can encode all possible sequences of genetic information it must be possible for the subunits to occur in any order.

Steven Benner, a computational genomics researcher, believes that we may be able to develop spacecraft experiments to detect alien genetic biopolymers. He notes that DNA and RNA are very unusual biopolymers because changing the sequence in which their subunits occur doesn’t change their chemical properties. It is this unusual property that allows these molecules to be stable carriers of any possible genetic code sequence.

DNA and RNA are both polyelectrolytes; molecules with regularly repeating areas of negative electrical charge. Benner believes that this is what accounts for their remarkable stability. He thinks that any alien genetic biopolymer would also need to be a polyelectrolyte, and that chemical tests could be devised by which a spacecraft might detect such polyelectrolyte molecules. Finding the alien counterpart of DNA is a very exciting prospect, and another piece to the puzzle of identifying alien life.

Structure of DNA
Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the genetic material for all known life on Earth. DNA is a biopolymer consisting of a string of subunits. The subunits consist of nucleotide base pairs containing a purine (adenine A, or guanine G) and a pyrimidine (thymine T, or cytosine C). DNA can contain nucleotide base pairs in any order without its chemical properties changing. This property is rare in biopolymers, and makes it possible for DNA to encode genetic information in the sequence of its base pairs. This stability is due to the fact that each base pair contains phosphate groups (consisting of phosphorus and oxygen atoms) on the outside with a net negative charge. These repeated negative charges make DNA a polyelectrolyte. Computational genomics researcher Steven Benner has hypothesized that alien genetic material will also be a polyelectrolyte biopolymer, and that chemical tests could therefore be devised to detect alien genetic molecules.
Credit: Zephyris

In 1996 President Clinton, made a dramatic announcement of the possible discovery of life on Mars. Clinton’s speech was motivated by the findings of David McKay’s team with the Alan Hills meteorite. In fact, the McKay findings turned out to be just one piece to the larger puzzle of possible Martian life. Unless an alien someday ambles past our waiting cameras, the question of whether or not extraterrestrial life exists is unlikely to be settled by a single experiment or a sudden dramatic breakthrough. Philosophers and scientists don’t have a single, sure-fire definition of life. Astrobiologists consequently don’t have a single sure-fire test that will settle the issue. If simple forms of life do exist on Mars, or elsewhere in the solar system, it now seems likely that that fact will emerge gradually, based on many converging lines of evidence. We won’t really know what we’re looking for until we find it.

References and further reading:

P. S. Anderson (2011) Could Curiosity Determine if Viking Found Life on Mars?, Universe Today.

S. K. Atreya, P. R. Mahaffy, A-S. Wong, (2007), Methane and related trace species on Mars: Origin, loss, implications for life, and habitability, Planetary and Space Science, 55:358-369.

M. A. Bedau (2010), An Aristotelian account of minimal chemical life, Astrobiology, 10(10): 1011-1020.

S. A. Benner (2010), Defining life, Astrobiology, 10(10):1021-1030.

E. Machery (2012), Why I stopped worrying about the definition of life…and why you should as well, Synthese, 185:145-164.

G. M. Marion, C. H. Fritsen, H. Eicken, M. C. Payne, (2003) The search for life on Europa: Limiting environmental factors, potential habitats, and Earth analogs. Astrobiology 3(4):785-811.

L. J. Mix (2015), Defending definitions of life, Astrobiology, 15(1) posted on-line in advance of publication.

P. E. Patton (2014) Moons of Confusion: Why Finding Extraterrestrial Life may be Harder than we Thought, Universe Today.

T. Reyes (2014) NASA’s Curiosity Rover detects Methane, Organics on Mars, Universe Today.

S. Seeger, M. Schrenk, and W. Bains (2012), An astrophysical view of Earth-based biosignature gases. Astrobiology, 12(1): 61-82.

S. Tirard, M. Morange, and A. Lazcano, (2010), The definition of life: A brief history of an elusive scientific endeavor, Astrobiology, 10(10):1003-1009.

C. R. Webster, and numerous other members of the MSL Science team, (2014) Mars methane detection and variability at Gale crater, Science, Science express early content.

Did Viking Mars landers find life’s building blocks? Missing piece inspires new look at puzzle. Science Daily Featured Research Sept. 5, 2010

NASA rover finds active and ancient organic chemistry on Mars, Jet Propulsion laboratory, California Institute of Technology, News, Dec. 16, 2014.

James Webb Space Telescope’s Pathfinder Mirror Backplane Arrives at NASA Goddard for Critical Assembly Testing

The central piece of the “pathfinder” backplane that will hold all the mirrors for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has arrived at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland for critical assembly testing on vital parts of the mammoth telescope.

The pathfinder backplane arrived at Goddard in July and has now been hoisted in place onto a huge assembly stand inside Goddard’s giant cleanroom where many key elements of JWST are being assembled and tested ahead of the launch scheduled for October 2018.

The absolutely essential task of JWST’s backplane is to hold the telescopes 18 segment, 21-foot-diameter primary mirror nearly motionless while floating in the utterly frigid space environment, thereby enabling the telescope to peer out into deep space for precise science gathering measurements never before possible.

Over the next several months, engineers will practice installing two spare primary mirror segments and one spare secondary mirror onto the center part of the backplane.

JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals.  Telescope assembly bays at right.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
JWST pathfinder backplane has arrived here at NASA Goddard clean room.
JWST is being assembled here inside the world’s largest clean room at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. Primary mirror segments stored in silver colored containers at top left. Technicians practice mirror installation on test piece of backplane (known as the BSTA or Backplane Stability Test Article) at center, 3 hexagonals. Pathfinder backplane has been hoisted into telescope assembly bays at right. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The purpose is to gain invaluable experience practicing the delicate procedures required to precisely install the hexagonal shaped mirrors onto the actual flight backplane unit after it arrives.

The telescopes primary and secondary flight mirrors have already arrived at Goddard.

The mirrors must remained precisely aligned in space in order for JWST to successfully carry out science investigations. While operating at extraordinarily cold temperatures between -406 and -343 degrees Fahrenheit the backplane must not move more than 38 nanometers, approximately 1/1,000 the diameter of a human hair.

The backplane and every other component must function and unfold perfectly and to precise tolerances in space because JWST has not been designed for servicing or repairs by astronaut crews voyaging beyond low-Earth orbit into deep space, William Ochs, Associate Director for JWST at NASA Goddard told me in an interview during a visit to JWST at Goddard.

Watch this video showing movement of the pathfinder backplane into the Goddard cleanroom.

Video Caption: This is a time-lapse video of the center section of the ‘pathfinder’ backplane for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being moved into the clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

The actual flight backplane is comprised of three segments – the main central segment and a pair of outer wing-like parts which will be folded over into launch configuration inside the payload fairing of the Ariane V ECA booster rocket. The telescope will launch from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in 2018.

Both the backplane flight unit and the pathfinder unit, which consists only of the center part, are being assembled and tested by prime contractor Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California.

Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Gold coated flight spare of a JWST primary mirror segment made of beryllium and used for test operations inside the NASA Goddard clean room. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The test unit was then loaded into a C-5, flown to the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and unloaded for transport by trailer truck to NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland.

JWST is the successor to the 24 year old Hubble Space Telescope and will become the most powerful telescope ever sent to space.

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.

A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA
A comparison of the primary mirror used by Hubble and the primary mirror array used by the James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA

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

NASA has overall responsibility and Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for JWST.

Read my story about the recent unfurling test of JWST’s sunshade – here.

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

Ken Kremer

The Webb telescope backplane "pathfinder" or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force's Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.   Image Credit:   NASA/Desiree Stover
The Webb telescope backplane “pathfinder” or practice-model was unloaded from a C-5 aircraft at the U.S. Air Force’s Joint Base Andrews in Maryland. Image Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom.  Credit: NASA/ESA
Artist’s concept of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) with Sunshield at bottom. Credit: NASA/ESA