NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope will Inspect the Atmospheres of Distant Gas Giants

The James Webb Space Telescope is like the party of the century that keeps getting postponed. Due to its sheer complexity and some anomalous readings that were detected during vibration testing, the launch date of this telescope has been pushed back many times – it is currently expected to launch sometime in 2021. But for obvious reasons, NASA remains committed to seeing this mission through.

Once deployed, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope in operation, and its advanced suite of instruments will reveal things about the Universe that have never before been seen. Among these are the atmospheres of extra-solar planets, which will initially consist of gas giants. In so doing, the JWST will refine the search for habitable planets, and eventually begin examining some potential candidates.

The JWST will be doing this in conjunction with the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which deployed to space back in April of 2018. As the name suggests, TESS will be searching for planets using the Transit Method (aka. Transit Photometry), where stars are monitored for periodic dips in brightness – which are caused by a planet passing in front of them relative to the observer.

Artist Illustration of TESS and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT
Artist concept of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and its 4 telescopes. Credit: NASA/MIT

Some of Webb’s first observations will be conducted through the Director’s Discretionary Early Release Science program –  a transiting exoplanet planet team at Webb’s science operation center. This team is planning on conducting three different types of observations that will provide new scientific knowledge and a better understanding of Webb’s science instruments.

As Jacob Bean of the University of Chicago, a co-principal investigator on the transiting exoplanet project, explained in a NASA press release:

“We have two main goals. The first is to get transiting exoplanet datasets from Webb to the astronomical community as soon as possible. The second is to do some great science so that astronomers and the public can see how powerful this observatory is.”

As Natalie Batalha of NASA Ames Research Center, the project’s principal investigator, added:

“Our team’s goal is to provide critical knowledge and insights to the astronomical community that will help to catalyze exoplanet research and make the best use of Webb in the limited time we have available.”

For their first observation, the JWST will be responsible for characterizing a planet’s atmosphere by examining the light that passes through it. This happens whenever a planet transits in front of a star, and the way light is absorbed at different wavelengths provides clues as to the atmosphere’s chemical composition. Unfortunately, existing space telescopes have not had the necessary resolution to scan anything smaller than a gas giant.

The JWST, with its advanced infrared instruments, will examine the light passing through exoplanet atmospheres, split it into a rainbow spectrum, and then infer the atmospheres’ composition based on which sections of light are missing. For these observations, the project team selected WASP-79b, a Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits a star in the Eridanus constellation, roughly 780 light-years from Earth.

The team expects to detect and measure the abundances of water, carbon monoxide, and carbon dioxide in WASP-79b, but is also hoping to find molecules that have not yet been detected in exoplanet atmospheres. For their second observation, the team will be monitoring a “hot Jupiter” known as WASP-43b, a planet which orbits its star with a period of less than 20 hours.

Like all exoplanets that orbit closely to their stars, this gas giant is tidally-locked – where one side is always facing the star. When the planet is in front of the star, astronomers are only able to see its cooler backside; but as it orbits, the hot day-side slowly comes into view. By observing this planet for the entirety of its orbit, astronomers will be able to observe those variations (known as a phase curve) and use the data to map the planet’s temperature, clouds, and atmospheric chemistry.

This data will allow them to sample the atmosphere to different depths and obtain a more complete picture of the planet’s internal structure. As Bean indicated:

“We have already seen dramatic and unexpected variations for this planet with Hubble and Spitzer. With Webb we will reveal these variations in significantly greater detail to understand the physical processes that are responsible.”

An exoplanet about ten times Jupiter’s mass located some 330 light years from Earth. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/I.Pillitteri et al; Optical: DSS; Illustration: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

For their third observation, the team will be attempting to observe a transiting planet directly. This is very challenging, seeing as how the star’s light is much brighter and therefore obscures the faint light being reflected off the planet’s atmosphere. One method for addressing this is to measure the light coming from a star when the planet is visible, and again when it disappears behind the star.

By comparing the two measurements, astronomers can calculate how much light is coming from the planet alone. This technique works best for very hot planets that glow brightly in infrared light, which is why they selected WASP-18b for this observation – a hot Jupiter that reaches temperatures of around 2,900 K (2627 °C; 4,800 °F). In the process, they hope to determine the composition of the planet’s smothering stratosphere.

In the end, these observations will help test the abilities of the JWST and calibrate its instruments. The ultimate goal will be to examine the atmospheres of potentially-habitable exoplanets, which in this case will include rocky (aka. “Earth-like”) planets that orbit low mass, dimmer red dwarf stars. In addition to being the most common star in our galaxy, red dwarfs are also believed to be the most likely place to find Earth-like planets.

Image: James Webb Space Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Telescope, shown in this artist’s conception, will provide more information about previously detected exoplanets. Beyond 2020, many more next-generation space telescopes are expected to build on what it discovers. Credit: NASA

As Kevin Stevenson, a researcher with the Space Telescope Science Institute and a co-principal investigator on the project, explained:

“TESS should locate more than a dozen planets orbiting in the habitable zones of red dwarfs, a few of which might actually be habitable. We want to learn whether those planets have atmospheres and Webb will be the one to tell us. The results will go a long way towards answering the question of whether conditions favorable to life are common in our galaxy.”

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier space science observatory once deployed, and will help astronomers to solve mysteries in our Solar System, study exoplanets, and observe the very earliest periods of the Universe to determine how its large-scale structure evolved over time. For this reason, its understandable why NASA is asking that the astronomical community be patient until they are sure it will deploy successfully.

When the payoff is nothing short of ground-breaking discoveries, it’s only fair that we be willing to wait. In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about how scientists study exoplanet atmospheres, courtesy of the Space Telescope Science Institute:

Further Reading: NASA

Good News, James Webb is Still a Go. Bad News, Launching in 2021

When it is deployed to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most powerful and advanced telescope ever deployed. As the spiritual and scientific successor to the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler Space Telescopes, this space observatory will use its advanced suite of infrared instruments to look back at the early Universe, study the Solar System, and help characterize extra-solar planets.

Unfortunately, after many delays, there’s some good news and bad news about this mission. The good news is that recently, the Independent Review Board (IRB) established by NASA to assess the progress on the JWST unanimously decided that work on the space telescope should continue. The bad news is that NASA has decided to push the launch date back again – this time to March 30th, 2021.

As part of their assessment, the IRB was established in April of 2018 to address a range of factors influencing Webb’s schedule and performance. These included the technical challenges and tasks that need to be tackled by its primary contractor (Northrop Grumman) before the mission can launch. A summary of the report’s recommendations, and NASA’s response, can be read here.

The Hubble Space Telescope on the left has a 2.4 meter mirror and the James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5 meter mirror. LUVOIR, not shown, will dwarf them both with a massive 15 meter mirror. Image: NASA
The Hubble Space Telescope on the left has a 2.4 meter mirror and the James Webb Space Telescope has a 6.5 meter mirror. LUVOIR, not shown, will dwarf them both with a massive 15 meter mirror. Credit: NASA

In the report, the IRB identified technical issues, which including human errors, that they claim have greatly impacted the development schedule. As they stated in their Overview:

“The observation that there are no small JWST integration and test problems was not initially recognized by the Webb IRB, and this also may be true of others involved with JWST. It is a most important observation that will be apparent in subsequent Findings and Recommendations. It is caused by the complexity and highly integrated nature of the observatory. Specifically, it implies, as an example, that a very small human error or test anomaly can impact the schedule by months and the cost by tens of millions of dollars.”

The anomaly mentioned in the report refers to the “anomalous readings” that were detected from the telescope during vibration testing back in December 2016. NASA responded to this by giving the project up to 4 months of schedule reserve by extending the launch window. However, in 2017, NASA delayed the launch window again by 5 months, from October 2018 to a between March and June 2019.

This delay was requested by the project team, who indicated that they needed to address lessons learned from the initial folding and deployment of the observatory’s sun shield. In February of 2018, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report that expressed concerns over further delays and cost overruns. Shortly thereafter, the JWST’s Standing Review Board (SRB) made an independent assessment of the remaining tasks.

The James Webb Space Telescope being placed in the Johnson Space Center’s historic Chamber A on June 20th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JSC

In May of 2018, NASA issued a statement indicating that they now estimated that the launch window would be some time in May 2020. However, they chose to await the findings of the IRB and consider the data from the JWST’s Standing Review Board before making the final determination. The new launch date was set to accommodate environmental testing and work performances challenges on the sunshield and propulsion system.

According to the IRB report, this latest delay will also result in a budget overrun. “As a result of the delay, Webb’s total lifecycle cost to support the March 2021 launch date is estimated at $9.66 billion,” they concluded. “The development cost estimate to support the new launch date is $8.8B (up from the $8B development cost estimate established in 2011).”

As Jim Bridenstine, the NASA Administrator, indicated in a message to the NASA workforce on Wednesday about the report:

“Webb is vital to the next generation of research beyond NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It’s going to do amazing things – things we’ve never been able to do before – as we peer into other galaxies and see light from the very dawn of time. Despite major challenges, the board and NASA unanimously agree that Webb will achieve mission success with the implementation of the board’s recommendations, many of which already are underway.”

In the end, the IRB, SRB and NASA are all in total agreement that the James Webb Space Telescope is a crucial mission that must be seen through. In addition to shedding light on a number of mysteries of the Universe – ranging from the earliest stars and galaxies in the Universe to exoplanet habitability – the JWST will also complement and enhance the discoveries made by other missions.

The combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope being removed from the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters on March 8th, 2018. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

These include not only Hubble and Spitzer, but also missions like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which launched this past April. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, also issued a statement on the recent report:

“The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed. Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait. The valuable recommendations of the IRB support our efforts towards mission success; we expect spectacular scientific advances from NASA’s highest science priority.”

The JWST will also be the first telescope of its kind, being larger and more complex than any previous space telescope – so challenges were anticipated from its very inception. In addition, the final phase consists of some of the most challenging work, where the 6.5-meter telescope and science payload element are being joined with the spacecraft element to complete the observatory.

The science team also needs to ensure that the observatory can be folded up to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it into space. They also need to ensure that it will unfold again once it reaches space, deploy its sunshield, mirrors and primary mirror. Beyond that, there are also the technical challenges of building a complex observatory that was created here on Earth, but designed to operate in space.

As a collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the JWST is also representative of the new era of international cooperation. As such, no one wishes to see the mission abandoned so close to completion. In the meantime, any delays that allow for extra testing will only ensure success in the long run.

Good luck JWST, we look forward to hearing about your first discoveries!

Further Reading: NASA

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Launch Delayed to 2019

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

The most powerful space telescope ever built will have to wait on the ground for a few more months into 2019 before launching to the High Frontier and looking back nearly to the beginning of time and unraveling untold astronomical secrets on how the early Universe evolved – Engineers need a bit more time to complete the Webb telescopes incredibly complex assembly and testing here on Earth.

Blastoff of NASA’s mammoth James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been postponed from late 2018 to the spring of 2019.

“NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope now is planning to launch between March and June 2019 from French Guiana, following a schedule assessment of the remaining integration and test activities,” the agency announced.

Until now the Webb telescope was scheduled to launch on a European Space Agency (ESA) Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in October 2018.

“The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Rather, the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected.”

NASA’s says the currently approved budget will not bust the budget or reduce the science output. It “accommodates the change in launch date, and the change will not affect planned science observations.”

NASA’s $8.8 Billion 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 Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).

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

Since Webb is not designed to be serviced by astronauts, the extremely thorny telescope deployment process is designed to occur on its own over a period of several months and must be fully successful. Webb will be positioned at the L2 Lagrange point- a gravitationally stable spot approximately 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) away from Earth.

So its better to be safe than sorry and take the extra time needed to insure success of the hugely expensive project.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sits in Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston awaiting the colossal door to close in July 2017 for cryogenic testing. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Various completed components of the Webb telescope are undergoing final testing around the country to confirm their suitability for launch.

Critical cryogenic cooling testing of Webb’s mirrors and science instrument bus is proceeding well inside a giant chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

However integration and testing of the complex multilayered sunshield at Northrup Grumman’s Redondo Beach, Ca. facility is taking longer than expected and “has experienced delays.”

The tennis court sized sunshield will protect the delicate optics and state of the art infrared science instruments on NASA’s Webb Telescope.

Webb’s four research instruments cannot function without the essential cooling provided by the sunshield deployment to maintain them at an operating temperature of minus 388 degrees F (minus 233 degrees C).

The Webb telescopes groundbreaking sunshield subsystem consists of five layers of kapton that will keep the optics and instruments incredibly cool, by reducing the incoming sunside facing temperature more than 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Each layer is as thin as a human hair.

All 5 layers of the Webb telescope sunshield installed at Northrop Grumman’s clean room in Redondo Beach, California. The five sunshield membrane layers are each as thin as a human hair. Credits: Northrop Grumman Corp.

“Webb’s spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft. The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer,” said Eric Smith, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.

“Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systematically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”

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

Northrop Grumman designed the Webb telescope’s optics and spacecraft bus for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages Webb.

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

Ken Kremer

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Learn more about the upcoming ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch on Oct 5 and SpaceX Falcon 9 SES-11 launch on Oct 7, JWST, OSIRIS-REx, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Oct 3-6, 8: “ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch, SpaceX SES-11, CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Northrop Grumman Acquires Orbital ATK for $9.2 Billion

Orbital ATK Antares rocket stands erect, reflecting off the calm waters the night before a launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA, on Oct. 28, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Aerospace giant Northrop Grumman will acquire Orbital ATK for approximately $9.2 billion, in a deal the companies announced Monday and they say will “expand capability” is largely “complementary” and involves “little overlap.”

Orbital ATK specializes in a wide variety of launch vehicles, satellites, missiles and munitions that Northrop believes will significantly enhance capabilities it lacks while offering Orbital significantly more technical and financial resources to grow sales and business opportunities.

Under the terms of the huge deal West Falls Church, Virginia based Northrop will dole out approximately $7.8 billion in cash to buy Dulles, Virginia based Orbital ATK and assume $1.4 billion in net debt. Orbital ATK shareholders will receive all-cash consideration of $134.50 per share, which is about a 20% premium above the stock’s price of $110 per share at the close of trading Friday, Sept. 15.

Rumors of the deal first appeared on Sunday.

Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft blasts off on July 13 2014 from Launch Pad 0A at NASA Wallops Flight Facility , VA, on the Orb-2 mission and loaded with over 3000 pounds of science experiments and supplies for the crew aboard the International Space Station. Credit: Ken Kremer – kenkremer.com

The final purchase is expected to take place around mid-2018, subject to approval by government regulators and Orbital ATK shareholders.

The Boards of Directors of both companies have already given unanimous approval to the mega buyout.

“Our two companies represent a very complementary fit,” Wes Bush, chief executive officer and president of Northrop Grumman said in a conference call on Monday, Sept. 18.

“We have very little overlap, and we fully expect our combined portfolios of leading technologies, along with our aligned and innovation-focused cultures, to yield significant value creation through revenue, cost and operational synergies, accelerating our profitable growth trajectory.”

Northrop indicated that Orbital ATK will operate as a separate fourth unit – at least initially – and that Orbital programs will benefit from the increased financial resources available from Northrup.

“Upon completion of the acquisition, Northrop Grumman plans to establish Orbital ATK as a new, fourth business sector to ensure a strong focus on operating performance and a smooth transition into Northrop Grumman.”

For his part Orbital ATK CEO David Thompson was very pleased with the buyout and future opportunities.

“The agreement reflects the tremendous value that Orbital ATK has created for our customers, our shareholders and our employees,” David Thompson, Orbital ATK president and chief executive officer said at the conference call.

“The combination will allow our team as a new business sector within Northrop Grumman to maintain strong operational performance on existing customer programs and to pursue new opportunities that require greater technical and financial resources than we currently possess.”

“Our collective customers should benefit from the expanded capabilities for innovation, increased speed of delivery and improved affordability of production resulting from the combination.”

“The combination of our companies and human capital will also significantly benefit our customers,” Bush elaborated. “Together, we can offer our customers enhanced mission capabilities and more competitive offerings in areas such as space, missiles and strategic deterrents.

“Our shareholders can expect revenue synergies from these new business opportunities.”

Northrop Grumman sales for 2017 amount to about $25 billion vs. about $4.5 billion for Orbital ATK
Orbital ATK itself is the product of a very recent merger in 2015 of Orbital Sciences and ATK.

The company employs over 13,000 people including over 4,200 scientists and engineers. It holds a heft backlog of contracts worth more than $15 billion.

Northrop Grumman employs over 68,000 people and is the fifth largest defense contractor.

“The agreement will also provide expanded career options for our employees as part of a larger, more diverse aerospace and defense company,” said Thompson.

It will also benefit stockholders.

“The transaction represents a truly compelling financial proposition for our shareholders, valuing the enterprise at about $9.2 billion and providing our investors with more than 120% total return over the 3-year period from the completion of the Orbital ATK merger in early 2015 to the expected closing in the first half of 2018.”

Orbital ATK Minotaur IV rocket streaks to orbit through low hanging clouds that instantly illuminate as the booster engines flames pass through. This first Minotaur launch from the Cape carried the ORS-5 satellite tracker to equatorial orbit for the U.S. Air Force at 2:04 a.m. EDT on August 26, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Orbital ATK launchers run the gamut from small to medium to large.

The rockets include the massive solid rocket boosters for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy lift rocket under development, the Antares liquid fueled booster used to launch Cygnus cargo freighters to the International Space Station for NASA, the Minotaur family of medium class solid rocket launchers, as well as sounding rockets for a variety of low weight science missions.

The most recent Orbital ATK launch took place on Aug. 26 when a Minotaur 4 rocket (a retired Peacekeeper ICBM) lifted off from Cape Canaveral with a USAF surveillance satellite.

Orbital ATK also has a thriving satellite manufacturing business building NASA science, commercial, government and military satellites.

Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope and designed the optics and spacecraft bus under contract for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

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

The purchase is also estimated to result in $150 million in annual cost savings by 2020.

“We believe that this combination represents a compelling value creation opportunity for the customers, shareholders and employees of both our companies,” stated Bush. “Through our combination, all of our stakeholders will benefit from expanded capabilities, accelerated innovation and greater competitiveness in critical global security domains.”

Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite NASA mission and launch reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center, and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, and NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Va.

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

Ken Kremer

The Orbital ATK Antares rocket, with the Cygnus OA-5 spacecraft onboard, is raised into the vertical position on launch Pad-0A for planned launch on Oct. 17, 2016, at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer

Sunshield Layers Installed on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope as Mirror Cryo Cooling Testing Commences

All 5 layers of the Webb telescope sunshield installed at Northrop Grumman’s clean room in Redondo Beach, California. The five sunshield membrane layers are each as thin as a human hair. Credits: Northrop Grumman Corp.

The complex multilayered sunshield that will protect the delicate optics and state of the art infrared science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now fully installed on the spacecraft bus in California, completing another major milestone on the path to launch, NASA announced.

Meanwhile a critical cryogenic cooling test of Webb’s mirrors and science instrument bus has commenced inside a giant chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, marking another major milestone as the mammoth telescope comes together after years of development.

NASA’s $8.8 Billion 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 sunshield layers work together to reduce the temperatures between the hot and cold sides of the observatory by approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Each successive layer of the sunshield, which is made of Kapton, is cooler than the one below. The sunshield is in the clean room at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California.
Credits: Northrop Grumman Corp.

The Webb telescopes groundbreaking tennis court sized sunshield subsystem consists of five layers of kapton that will keep the optics and instruments incredibly cool, by reducing the incoming sunside facing temperature more than 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Each layer is as thin as a human hair.

“The sunshield layers work together to reduce the temperatures between the hot and cold sides of the observatory by approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to NASA. “Each successive layer of the sunshield is cooler than the one below.”

The painstaking work to integrate the five sunshield membranes was carried out in June and July by engineers and technicians working at the Northrop Grumman Corporation facility in Redondo Beach, California.

“All five sunshield membranes have been installed and will be folded over the next few weeks,” said Paul Geithner, deputy project manager – technical for the Webb telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.

Deployment tests of the folded sunshield start in August.

Webb’s four research instruments cannot function without the essential cooling provided by the sunshield deployment.

Northrop Grumman designed the Webb telescope’s optics and spacecraft bus for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages Webb.

Two sides of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Credit: NASA

“This is a huge milestone for the Webb telescope as we prepare for launch,” said Jim Flynn, Webb sunshield manager, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

“The groundbreaking tennis court sized sunshield will shield the optics from heat and assist in providing the imaging of the formation of stars and galaxies more than 13.5 billion years ago.”

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

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.

After successfully passing a rigorous series of vibration and acoustic environmental tests earlier this year at NASA Goddard in March, the mirror and instrument assembly was shipped to NASA Johnson in May for the cryo cooling tests.

“Those tests ensured Webb can withstand the vibration and noise created during the telescope’s launch into space. Currently, engineers are analyzing this data to prepare for a final round of vibration and acoustic testing, once Webb is joined with the spacecraft bus and sunshield next year,” says NASA.

The cryogenic cooling test will last 100 days and is being carried out inside the giant thermal vacuum known as Chamber A at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sits in Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston awaiting the colossal door to close in July 2017 for cryogenic testing. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

“A combination of liquid nitrogen and cold gaseous helium will be used to cool the telescope and science instruments to their operational temperature during high-vacuum operations,” said Mark Voyton, manager of testing effort, who works at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Next year, the tennis-court sized sunshield and spacecraft bus will be combined to make up the entire observatory.

The first layer of the Webb telescope sunshield installed at Northrop Grumman’s clean room in Redondo Beach, California. Credits: Northrop Grumman Corp.

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

Assembly of the Webb telescope is currently on target and slated to launch on an ESA Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in October 2018.

NASA and ESA are currently evaluating a potential launch scheduling conflict with ESA’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury.

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

Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

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

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

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Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Dragon CRS-12 resupply launch to ISS on Aug. 14, ULA Atlas TDRS-M NASA comsat on Aug. 18, 2017 Solar Eclipse, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Aug 11-14: “SpaceX CRS-12 and CRS-11 resupply launches to the ISS, Inmarsat 5, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, EchoStar 23, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

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

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.

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