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

New Age in Weather Forecasting Begins with Spectacular 1st Images from NASA/NOAA GOES-16 Observatory

GOES-16 (previously known as GOES-R) captured this view of the moon as it looked across the surface of the Earth on January 15, 2017. Like earlier GOES satellites, GOES-16 will use the moon for calibration. Credit: NOAA/NASA

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A new age has begun in the nations weather forecasting capabilities with the release today (Jan. 23) of the spectacular first images gathered by the recently launched NASA/NOAA GOES-16 observatory.

The highly advanced Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-16 (GOES-16) weather observatory lifted off two months ago atop a ULA Atlas V rocket on Nov. 19, 2016 from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

GOES-16 (formerly known as GOES-R through the launch) is the first in a new series of revolutionary NASA/NOAA geostationary weather satellites that entails the first significant instrument upgrade to US weather forecasting capabilities in more than two decades.

“It will be like high-definition from the heavens,” says NOAA.

“Today’s release of the first images from #GOES16 signals the start of a new age in satellite weather observation!!!”

Thus the newly obtained and published imagery has been anxiously awaited by scientists, meteorologists and ordinary weather enthusiasts.

“This is such an exciting day for NOAA! One of our GOES-16 scientists compared this to seeing a newborn baby’s first pictures — it’s that exciting for us,” said Stephen Volz Ph.D. director of NOAA’s Satellite and Information Service, in a statement.

“These images come from the most sophisticated technology ever flown in space to predict severe weather on Earth. The fantastically rich images provide us with our first glimpse of the impact GOES-16 will have on developing life-saving forecasts.”

This image clearly shows the significant storm system that crossed North America that caused freezing and ice that resulted in dangerous conditions across the United States on January 15, 2017 resulting in loss of life. Credit: NOAA/NASA

An especially eye-popping image taken by GOES -16 from its equatorial vantage point situated in geostationary orbit 22,300 miles (35,800 kilometers) above Earth and published today, shows both the Earth and the Moon together – as the lead image here.

The Earth/Moon combo shot is not only fantastically pleasing to the eye, but also serves a significant scientific purpose.

“Like earlier GOES satellites, GOES-16 will use the moon for calibration,” say NOAA officials.

“GOES-16 will boost the nation’s weather observation network and NOAA’s prediction capabilities, leading to more accurate and timely forecasts, watches and warnings.”

GOES-16 is the most advanced and powerful weather observatory ever built and will bring about a ‘quantum leap’ in weather forecasting.

“Seeing these first images from GOES-16 is a foundational moment for the team of scientists and engineers who worked to bring the satellite to launch and are now poised to explore new weather forecasting possibilities with this data and imagery,” said Volz.

“The incredibly sharp images are everything we hoped for based on our tests before launch. We look forward to exploiting these new images, along with our partners in the meteorology community, to make the most of this fantastic new satellite.”

It’s dramatic new imagery will show the weather in real time enabling critical life and property forecasting, help pinpoint evacuation zones and also save people’s lives in impacted areas of severe weather including hurricanes and tornadoes.

And the huge satellite can’t come online soon enough, as demonstrated by the severe winter weather and tornadoes that just wreaked havoc and death in various regions of the US.

Another breathtaking image product (seen below) produced by the GOES-16 Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument, built by Harris Corporation, shows a full-disc view of the Western Hemisphere in high detail — at four times the image resolution of existing GOES spacecraft.

This composite color full-disk visible image shows North and South America and was taken on January 15, 2017. It was created using several of the 16 spectral channels available on the GOES-16 Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument. Credit: NOAA/NASA

The 11,000 pound satellite was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin and is the first of a quartet of four identical satellites – comprising GOES-R, S, T, and U – at an overall cost of about $11 Billion. This will keep the GOES satellite system operational through 2036.

This next generation of GOES satellites will replace the currently operating GOES East and GOES West satellites.

NOAA will soon decide whether GOES-16 will replace either the East or West satellites. A decision from NOAA is expected in May. GOES-16 will be operational by November 2017 as either the GOES-East or GOES-West satellite. Of course everyone wants it first.

The next satellite is nearing assembly completion and will undergo about a year of rigorous environmental and acoustic testing before launch. It will go to whichever slot was not selected this year.

This 16-panel image shows the continental United States in the two visible, four near-infrared and 10 infrared channels on the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI). These channels help forecasters distinguish between differences in the atmosphere like clouds, water vapor, smoke, ice and volcanic ash. Credit: NOAA/NASA

The six instrument science suite includes the Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) built by Harris Corporation, the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) built by Lockheed Martin, Solar Ultraviolet Imager (SUVI), Extreme Ultraviolet and X-Ray Irradiance Sensors (EXIS), Space Environment In-Situ Suite (SEISS), and the Magnetometer (MAG).

ABI is the primary instrument and will collect 3 times more spectral data with 4 times greater resolution and scans 5 times faster than ever before – via the primary Advanced Baseline Imager (ABI) instrument – compared to the current GOES satellites.

Northeast Coast and New York Metropolitan region. On January 15, 2017 severe weather moved across the central United States before passing through the Northeast on the 16th and 17th where it resulted in wet and wintry weather for travelers across the region. Credit: NOAA/NASA

“The higher resolution will allow forecasters to pinpoint the location of severe weather with greater accuracy. GOES-16 can provide a full image of Earth every 15 minutes and one of the continental U.S. every five minutes, and scans the Earth at five times the speed of NOAA’s current GOES imagers.”

The NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) being processed at Astrotech Space Operations, in Titusville, FL, in advance of successful launch on a ULA Atlas V on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R/GOES-16 will be America’s most advanced weather satellite. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

GOES-R launched on the massively powerful Atlas V 541 configuration vehicle, augmented by four solid rocket boosters on the first stage. As I witnessed and reported here.

Blastoff of revolutionary NASA/NOAA GOES-R (Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite – R Series) on ULA Atlas V from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Nov. 19, 2016. GOES-R will deliver a quantum leap in America’s weather forecasting capabilities. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

Ken Kremer

Florida and The Caribbean. In May 2017, NOAA will announce the planned location for GOES-16. By November 2017, GOES-16 will be operational as either the GOES-East or GOES-West satellite. At its current check out location the satellite captured this image of the Caribbean and Florida. Here the satellite captures the shallows waters of the Caribbean. Credit: NOAA/NASA

Weekly Space Hangout – October 7, 2016: James Webb: Standing on the Shoulders of Hubble

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest:
Paul Geithner, Deputy Project Manager – Technical for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Guests:

Kimberly Cartier ( KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Alessondra Springmann (sondy.com / @sondy)

Their stories this week:

MAVEN’s One Year Anniversary

Giant plasma balls ejected from star

Hurricane Matthew at the space coast

Ultra-strange ultra-cool brown dwarfs

Successful test of New Shepard crew escape system

Saturday, Oct. 8 is International Observe the Moon Night!

We are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

If you would like to sign up for the AstronomyCast Solar Eclipse Escape, where you can meet Fraser and Pamela, plus WSH Crew and other fans, visit our site linked above and sign up!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

Celebrate International Observe the Moon Night on Saturday, Oct. 8 2016!

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This Saturday, October 8, 2016, is International Observe the Moon Night (InOMN), an annual worldwide public event that encourages observation, appreciation, and understanding of our Moon and its connection to NASA planetary science and exploration. InOMN is sponsored by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI), and the Lunar and Planetary Institute.

LROC WAC image of the Moon. Credit: NASA/LRO
LROC WAC image of the Moon. Credit: NASA/LRO

Everyone on Earth is invited to join the celebration by hosting or attending an InOMN event — and uniting on one day each year to look at and learn about the Moon together. We encourage you to go to InOMN events near you, such as at your local planetariums or museums, or to go out and observe the moon yourself! You can find events near you at the InOMN site. You can also follow the InOMN Twitter feed to see what everyone is doing to celebrate!

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Our friends over at CosmoQuest are proud to be partners in this celebration of Earth’s natural satellite. There you can “Observe the Moon” all year long by taking part in lunar-themed activities, such as our Moon Mappers citizen science program, where you’ll get to look at some of the most detailed images taken by the LRO, and help our scientists study the moon and it’s surface. This excellent program is available free of charge, no matter the weather, time of day or your location – you get the best views of the Moon ever!

youngmoonmapper

Take some photos of your activities, whether outdoors observing or indoors mapping craters, and share them online at the CosmoQuest Twitter and Facebook feeds using the hashtag #observethemoon, and CosmoQuest will repost their favorites!

leif looking at the moon

Here are just a few of the media celebrations that have already been posted for InOMN!

One of CosmoQuest’s partners, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, has a great document here celebrating recent lunar discoveries.

The Moon and More” is a music video starring musicians Javier Colon (Season 1 winner of NBC’s “The Voice”), and Matt Cusson in collaboration with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/David Ladd, producer

The Photon Sieve Could Revolutionize Optics

Ever since astronomers first began using telescopes to get a better look at the heavens, they have struggled with a basic conundrum. In addition to magnification, telescopes also need to be able to resolve the small details of an object in order to help us get a better understanding of them. Doing this requires building larger and larger light-collecting mirrors, which requires instruments of greater size, cost and complexity.

However, scientists working at NASA Goddard’s Space Flight Center are working on an inexpensive alternative. Instead of relying on big and impractical large-aperture telescopes, they have proposed a device that could resolve tiny details while being a fraction of the size. It’s known as the photon sieve, and it is being specifically developed to study the Sun’s corona in the ultraviolet.

Basically, the photon sieve is a variation on the Fresnel zone plate, a form of optics that consist of tightly spaced sets of rings that alternate between the transparent and the opaque. Unlike telescopes which focus light through refraction or reflection, these plates cause light to diffract through transparent openings. On the other side, the light overlaps and is then focused onto a specific point – creating an image that can be recorded.

This image shows how the photon sieve brings red laser light to a pinpoint focus on its optical axis, but produces exotic diffraction patterns when viewed from the side. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
Image showing the photon sieve bringing red laser light to a pinpoint focus on its optical axis, and producing exotic diffraction patterns. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

The photon sieve operates on the same basic principles, but with a slightly more sophisticated twist. Instead of thin openings (i.e. Fresnel zones), the sieve consists of a circular silicon lens that is dotted with millions of tiny holes. Although such a device would be potentially useful at all wavelengths, the Goddard team is specifically developing the photon sieve to answer a 50-year-old question about the Sun.

Essentially, they hope to study the Sun’s corona to see what mechanism is heating it. For some time, scientists have known that the corona and other layers of the Sun’s atmosphere (the chromosphere, the transition region, and the heliosphere) are significantly hotter than its surface. Why this is has remained a mystery. But perhaps, not for much longer.

As Doug Rabin, the leader of the Goddard team, said in a NASA press release:

“This is already a success… For more than 50 years, the central unanswered question in solar coronal science has been to understand how energy transported from below is able to heat the corona. Current instruments have spatial resolutions about 100 times larger than the features that must be observed to understand this process.”

With support from Goddard’s Research and Development program, the team has already fabricated three sieves, all of which measure 7.62 cm (3 inches) in diameter. Each device contains a silicon wafer with 16 million holes, the sizes and locations of which were determined using a fabrication technique called photolithography – where light is used to transfer a geometric pattern from a photomask to a surface.

Doug Rabin, Adrian Daw, John O’Neill, Anne-Marie Novo-Gradac, and Kevin Denis are developing an unconventional optic that could give scientists the resolution they need to see finer details of the physics powering the sun’s corona. Other team members include Joe Davila, Tom Widmyer, and Greg Woytko, who are not pictured. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk
The Goddard team led by Doug Rabin (left) is working on a new optic device that will drastically reduce the size of telescopes. Credits: NASA/W. Hrybyk

However, in the long-run, they hope to create a sieve that will measure 1 meter (3 feet) in diameter. With an instrument of this size, they believe they will be able to achieve up to 100 times better angular resolution in the ultraviolet than NASA’s high-resolution space telescope – the Solar Dynamics Observatory. This would be just enough to start getting some answers from the Sun’s corona.

In the meantime, the team plans to begin testing to see if the sieve can operate in space, a process which should take less than a year. This will include whether or not it can survive the intense g-forces of a space launch, as well as the extreme environment of space. Other plans include marrying the technology to a series of CubeSats so a two-spacecraft formation-flying mission could be mounted to study the Sun’s corona.

In addition to shedding light on the mysteries of the Sun, a successful photon sieve could revolution optics as we know it. Rather than being forced to send massive and expensive apparatus’ into space (like the Hubble Space Telescope or the James Webb Telescope), astronomers could get all the high-resolution images they need from devices small enough to stick aboard a satellite measuring no more than a few square meters.

This would open up new venues for space research, allowing private companies and research institutions the ability to take detailed photos of distant stars, planets, and other celestial objects. It would also constitute another crucial step towards making space exploration affordable and accessible.

Further Reading: NASA

Weekly Space Hangout – Feb. 19, 2016: Rebecca Roth

Host: Fraser Cain (@fcain)

Special Guest: Rebecca Roth, Imaging Coordinator & Social Media Specialist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; responsible for sharing imagery with the media, as well as sharing those images with the public, mainly through social media such as Instagram and Flickr.

Guests:

Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg )
Kimberly Cartier (@AstroKimCartier )
Dave Dickinson (www.astroguyz.com / @astroguyz)
Jolene Creighton (fromquarkstoquasars.com / @futurism)

Their stories this week:
New X-ray observatory takes to the skies

Hubble Directly Measures Rotation of Cloudy “Super-Jupiter”

Possible Hidden Layer of Meteorites in Antarctica

ESA says Goodbye to Philae

China to Displace Thousands for New Radio Telescope

Visible light and gravitational waves

We’ve had an abundance of news stories for the past few months, and not enough time to get to them all. So we’ve started a new system. Instead of adding all of the stories to the spreadsheet each week, we are now using a tool called Trello to submit and vote on stories we would like to see covered each week, and then Fraser will be selecting the stories from there. Here is the link to the Trello WSH page (http://bit.ly/WSHVote), which you can see without logging in. If you’d like to vote, just create a login and help us decide what to cover!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Friday at 12:00 pm Pacific / 3:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Google+, Universe Today, or the Universe Today YouTube page.

You can also join in the discussion between episodes over at our Weekly Space Hangout Crew group in G+!

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

NASA Unravels Mysteries of Magnetic Reconnection with Nighttime Blastoff of MMS Satellite Quartet – Watch Live

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – A state of the art quartet of identical science satellites aimed at unraveling the mysteries of the process known as magnetic reconnection is slated for a spectacular nighttime blastoff tonight, March 12, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on Cape Canaveral, Florida.

The $1.1 Billion Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission is comprised of four formation flying and identically instrumented observatories whose objective is providing the first three-dimensional views of a fundamental process in nature known as magnetic reconnection.

Magnetic reconnection is a little understood natural process whereby magnetic fields around Earth connect and disconnect while explosively releasing vast amounts of energy. It occurs throughout the universe.

Liftoff is slated for 10:44 p.m. EDT Thursday March 12 from Space Launch Complex 41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

The launch window extends for 30 minutes. You can watch the MMS launch live on NASA TV, below, starting at 8 p.m.



Broadcast live streaming video on Ustream

Spectators ringing the Florida space coast region and ranging well beyond should be treated to a magnificent fireworks display and skyward streak of perhaps several minutes – weather and clouds permitting.

Currently the weather forecast is 70 percent “GO” for favorable conditions at launch time. The primary concerns for a safe and successful launch are for cumulus clouds and thick clouds.

In the event of a 24 hour delay for any reason the weather forecast is 60 percent “GO.”

Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
Technicians work on NASA’s 20-foot-tall Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mated quartet of stacked observatories in the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The 195 foot tall rocket and encapsulated MMS satellite payload were rolled out to Space Launch Complex-41 on Wednesday March 10 at 10 a.m. on the Mobile Launch Platform (MLP) about 1800 feet from the Vertical Integration Facility or VIF to the Cape Canaveral pad.

The two stage Atlas V rocket will deliver the MMS constellation to a highly elliptical orbit.

The venerable rocket with a 100% success rate will launch in the Atlas V 421 configuration with a 4-meter diameter Extra Extended Payload Fairing along with two Aerojet Rocketdyne solid rocket motors attached to the Atlas booster first stage.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V 421 rocket is poised for blastoff at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex-41 in preparation for launch of NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) science mission on March 12, 2015. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

The Atlas first stage is powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage is powered by the Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10A engine producing 22,300 lb of thrust.

The first stage is 12.5 ft in diameter and fueled with liquid propellants. The RD-180 burns RP-1 highly purified kerosene and liquid oxygen and delivers 860,200 lb of sea level thrust.

This is ULA’s 4th launch in 2015, the 53nd Atlas V mission and the fourth Atlas V 421 launch.

“This is the perfect time for this mission,” said Jim Burch, principal investigator of the MMS instrument suite science team at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Texas.

“MMS is a crucial next step in advancing the science of magnetic reconnection. Studying magnetic reconnection near Earth will unlock the ability to understand how this process works throughout the entire universe.”

After a six month check out phase the probes will start science operation in September.

Unlike previous missions to observe the evidence of magnetic reconnection events, MMS will have sufficient resolution to measure the characteristics of ongoing reconnection events as they occur.

The four probes were built in-house by NASA at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland where I visited them during an inspection tour by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

I asked Bolden to explain the goals of MMS during a one-on-one interview.

“MMS will help us study the phenomena known as magnetic reconnection and help us understand how energy from the sun – magnetic and otherwise – affects our own life here on Earth,” Bolden told Universe Today.

“MMS will study what effects that process … and how the magnetosphere protects Earth.”

MMS measurements should lead to significant improvements in models for yielding better predictions of space weather and thereby the resulting impacts for life here on Earth as well as for humans aboard the ISS and robotic satellite explorers in orbit and the heavens beyond.

The best place to study magnetic reconnection is ‘in situ’ in Earth’s magnetosphere. This will lead to better predictions of space weather phenomena.

Magnetic reconnection is also believed to help trigger the spectacular aurora known as the Northern or Southern lights.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014.  Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden poses with the agency’s Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft, mission personnel, Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese and NASA Associate Administrator John Grunsfeld, during visit to the cleanroom at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on May 12, 2014. Credit: Ken Kremer- kenkremer.com

MMS is a Solar Terrestrial Probes Program, or STP, mission within NASA’s Heliophysics Division

Watch for Ken’s ongoing MMS coverage and he’ll be onsite at the Kennedy Space Center in the days leading up to the launch on March 12.

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

Ken Kremer

Exoplanet-Hunting TESS Satellite to be Launched by SpaceX

A conceptual image of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite. Image Credit: MIT

The search for exoplanets is heating up, thanks to the deployment of space telescopes like Kepler and the development of new observation methods. In fact, over 1800 exoplanets have been discovered since the 1980s, with 850 discovered just last year. That’s quite the rate of progress, and Earth’s scientists have no intention of slowing down!

Hot on the heels of the Kepler mission and the ESA’s deployment of the Gaia space observatory last year, NASA is getting ready to launch TESS (the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite). And to provide the launch services, NASA has turned to one of its favorite commercial space service providers – SpaceX.

The launch will take place in August 2017 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, where it will be placed aboard a Falcon 9 v1.1 – a heavier version of the v 1.0 developed in 2013. Although NASA has contracted SpaceX to perform multiple cargo deliveries to the International Space Station, this will be only the second time that SpaceX has assisted the agency with the launch of a science satellite.

This past September, NASA also signed a lucrative contract with SpaceX worth $2.6 billion to fly astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station. As part of the Commercial Crew Program, SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft were selected by NASA to help restore indigenous launch capability to the US.

James Webb Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope, the space observatory scheduled for launch in 2018. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The total cost for TESS is estimated at approximately $87 million, which will include launch services, payload integration, and tracking and maintenance of the spacecraft throughout the course of its three year mission.

As for the mission itself, that has been the focus of attention for many years. Since it was deployed in 2009, the Kepler spacecraft has yielded more and more data on distant planets, many of which are Earth-like and potentially habitable. But in 2013, two of four reaction wheels on Kepler failed and the telescope has lost its ability to precisely point toward stars. Even though it is now doing a modified mission to hunt for exoplanets, NASA and exoplanet enthusiasts have been excited by the prospect of sending up another exoplanet hunter, one which is even more ideally suited to the task.

Once deployed, TESS will spend the next three years scanning the nearest and brightest stars in our galaxy, looking for possible signs of transiting exoplanets. This will involve scanning nearby stars for what is known as a “light curve”, a phenomenon where the visual brightness of a star drops slightly due to the passage of a planet between the star and its observer.

By measuring the rate at which the star dims, scientists are able to estimate the size of the planet passing in front of it. Combined with measurements the star’s radial velocity, they are also able to determine the density and physical structure of the planet. Though it has some drawbacks, such as the fact that stars rarely pass directly in front of their host stars, it remains the most effective means of observing exoplanets to date.

Number of extrasolar planet discoveries per year through September 2014, with colors indicating method of detection:   radial velocity   transit   timing   direct imaging   microlensing. Image Credit: Public domain
Number of extrasolar planet discoveries on up to Sept. 2014, with colors indicating method of detection. Blue: radial velocity; Green: transit; Yellow: timing, Red: direct imaging; Orange: microlensing. Image Credit: Alderon/Wikimedia Commons

In fact, as of 2014, this method became the most widely used for determining the presence of exoplanets beyond our Solar System. Compared to other methods – such as measuring a star’s radial velocity, direct imaging, the timing method, and microlensing – more planets have been detected using the transit method than all the other methods combined.

In addition to being able to spot planets by the comparatively simple method of measuring their light curve, the transit method also makes it possible to study the atmosphere of a transiting planet. Combined with the technique of measuring the parent star’s radial velocity, scientists are also able to measure a planet’s mass, density, and physical characteristics.

With TESS, it will be possible to study the mass, size, density and orbit of exoplanets. In the course of its three-year mission, TESS will be looking specifically for Earth-like and super-Earth candidates that exist within their parent star’s habitable zone.

This information will then be passed on to Earth-based telescopes and the James Webb Space Telescope – which will be launched in 2018 by NASA with assistance from the European and Canadian Space Agencies – for detailed characterization.

The TESS Mission is led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – who developed it with seed funding from Google – and is overseen by the Explorers Program at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

Further Reading: NASA, SpaceX

 

Surprise! Galaxies Still Evolving in Present Universe

A giant spiral of gas dust and stars, Messier 101 spans 170,000 light-years and contains more than a trillion stars. Astronomers have uncovered a surprising trend in galaxy evolution where galaxies like M101 and the Milky Way Galaxy continued to develop into settled disk galaxies long after previously thought. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble

Graceful in their turnings, spiral galaxies were thought to have reached their current state billions of years ago. A study of hundreds of galaxies, however, upsets that notion revealing that spiral galaxies, like the Andromeda Galaxy and our own Milky Way, have continued to change.

“Astronomers thought disk galaxies in the nearby universe had settled into their present form by about 8 billion years ago, with little additional development since,” said Susan Kassin, an astronomer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the study’s lead researcher in a press release. “The trend we’ve observed instead shows the opposite, that galaxies were steadily changing over this time period.”

A study of 544 star-forming galaxies observed by the Earth-based Keck and Hubble Space Telescope shows that disk galaxies like our Milky Way Galaxy unexpectedly reached their current state long after much of the universe’s star formation had ceased. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Astronomers used the twin 10-meter earth-bound W.M. Keck Observatory atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to study 544 star-forming galaxies. Farther back in time, galaxies tend to be very different, say astronomers, with random and disorganized motions. Nearer to the present, star-forming galaxies look like well-ordered disk-shaped systems. Rotation in these galaxies trumps other internal, random motions. These galaxies are gradually settling into well-behaved disks with the most massive galaxies always showing higher organization.

This plot shows the fractions of settled disk galaxies in four time spans, each about 3 billion years long. There is a steady shift toward higher percentages of settled galaxies closer to the present time. At any given time, the most massive galaxies are the most settled. More distant and less massive galaxies on average exhibit more disorganized internal motions, with gas moving in multiple directions, and slower rotation speeds. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

The sampling of galaxies studied, from the Deep Extragalactic Evolutionary Probe 2 (DEEP2) Redshift Survey, ranged between 2 billion and 8 billion light-years from Earth with masses between 0.3 percent to 100 percent that of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Researchers looked at all galaxies in this time range with emission lines bright enough to determine internal motions. Researchers focused on emission lines characteristically emitted by gas within the galaxy. The emission lines not only tell scientists about the elements that make up the galaxies but also red shifting of emission lines contains information on the internal motions and distance.

“Previous studies removed galaxies that did not look like the well-ordered rotating disks now common in the universe today,” said co-author Benjamin Weiner, an astronomer at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “By neglecting them, these studies examined only those rare galaxies in the distant universe that are well-behaved and concluded that galaxies didn’t change.”

In the past 8 billion years, mergers between galaxies, both large and small, has decreased. So has the overall rate of star formation and associated disruptions due to supernovae explosions. Both factors may play a role in the newly found trend, say scientists.

The Milky Way Galaxy may have gone through the same chaotic growing and changing as the galaxies in the DEEP2 sample before settling into its present state at just about the same time the Sun and Earth were forming, say team scientists. By observing the pattern, astronomers can now adjust computer simulations of galaxy evolution until they replicate the observations. Then the hunt will be on to determine the physical processes responsible for the trend.

This cosmological simulation follows the development of a single disk galaxy throughout the life of the Universe; about 13.5 billion years. Red colors show old stars, young stars show as white and bright blue while the distribution of gas shows as a pale blue. The computer-generated view spans about 300,000 light-years. The simulation, running on the Pleiades supercomputer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, took about 1 million CPU hours to complete. Credit: F. Governato and T. Quinn (Univ. of Washington), A. Brooks (Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison), and J. Wadsley (McMaster Univ.).

A paper detailing the findings will be published in the October 20, 2012 The Astrophysical Journal.

Source: NASA