Meet MIRI, Infrared Camera for Webb Telescope

Our friend Will Gater from the BBC’s Sky At Night Magazine had the chance to get a behind-the-scenes tour of the facility that is building the Mid-Infrared Instrument on the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope. You’ll meet MIRI inside clean room at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the UK, before it’s packaged up and sent over to NASA Goddard in the US and hear from some of the scientists involved in the project. MIRI is expected to make important contributions to all four of the primary science themes for JWST: 1.) discovery of the “first light”; 2.) assembly of galaxies: history of star formation, growth of black holes, production of heavy elements; 3.) how stars and planetary systems form; and 4.) evolution of planetary systems and conditions for life.

Rumors of Continued Soaring Life-Cycle Costs for Webb Telescope

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Under the threat of cancellation because of cost overruns, this is about the worst news the James Webb Space Telescope could get. A report in Aviation Week & Space Technology says the life cycle costs for developing, launching and managing a five-year mission for the giant space telescope has risen to $8.7 billion, up from the previous estimate of $6.5 billion.

This past July, the U.S House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science proposed a budget for fiscal year 2012 that would cancel JWST’s funding. No final decision has been made on the fate of JWST, but this latest increase – just one of many life cycle increases of the telescope – does not bode well for NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Aviation Week said managers at NASA have been re-planning the James Webb Space Telescope program after an independent cost analysis found it over budget and behind schedule. The independent analysis was headed by John Casani, a special assistant to the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory with long experience developing scientific spacecraft, and that report found the $5.1 billion estimate to completion was at least $1.4 billion short.

Now, tack on an additional $2.2 billion.

No details were provided of what the $2.2 billion includes, but the launch of JWST would be no earlier than 2018.

Details of how the agency will pay the cost will be covered in the fiscal 2013 NASA budget request now in preparation, Aviation Week quoted a NASA spokesman.

Of course, NASA’s entire budget is threatened to be cut by at least 10%, as President Obama has asked federal agencies to cut their budgets by that amount to enable a chance at balancing the federal budget.

But today, Nature News reports that NASA is looking at funding the flagship observatory in a different manner. JWST is currently funded entirely through NASA’s science division; now NASA is requesting that more than $1 billion in extra costs be shared 50:50 with the rest of the agency. Nature News said the request reflects administrator Charles Bolden’s view, expressed earlier this month, that the telescope is a priority not only for the science program but for the entire agency.

If ‘creative’ funding for JWST is not worked out, it would mean other programs would suffer greatly or be cut.

NASA made personnel changes at Goddard Spaceflight Center, the home of JWST, after Casani’s group concluded the majority of costs overruns were managerial rather than technical.

Sources: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Nature News

New Webb Telescope Technologies Already Helping Human Eyes

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Editor’s note: This NASA press release provides just one example of how developing technology for space missions often has practical, beneficial and sometimes unintended applications on Earth.

Even while construction of the James Webb Space Telescope is underway on the most advanced infrared vision of any space observatory, its technologies are already proving useful to human eye health here on Earth.

“The Webb telescope program has enabled a number of improvements in measurement technology for astronomy, mirror fabrication, and measurement of human eyes, diagnosis of ocular diseases and potentially improved surgery,” said Dr. Dan Neal, Research Fellow at Abbott Medical Optics Inc. in Albuquerque, N.M.

The Webb telescope will be the most scientifically powerful telescope NASA has ever built — 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope. The Webb telescope will find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, connecting the Big Bang to our own Milky Way Galaxy. It will also peer through dusty clouds to see stars and planets being born, connecting star formation in our own galaxy with the solar system.

“The advanced wavefront sensing technology developed for testing the Webb telescope’s 18 primary mirrors led to the new applications in other areas,” said Tony Hull of L3 Integrated Optical Systems Division-Tinsley Facility in Richmond, Calif., where the Webb’s mirrors were recently polished to accuracies of less than one millionth of an inch.

“Wavefront sensing” is used to measure shape of the mirrors during fabrication and control the optics once the telescope is in orbit.

Ophthalmologists routinely use wavefront technology to measure aberrations of the eye. Those measurements help with diagnosis, research, characterization and planning treatment of eye health issues.

“The technology also provides more accurate eye measurements for people about to undergo Laser Refractive Surgery,” Neal said. “To date 10-12 million eyes have been treated with Lasik procedures in the U.S. alone. As technology improves, so does the quality of these procedures.”

James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

A new “scanning and stitching” technology developed for the Webb telescope led to a number of innovative instrument concepts for more accurate measurement for contact lenses and intra-ocular lenses. Another benefit to eye health is that this technique can help “map” the topography of the eye more accurately.

Think of the surface of your eye as being as dented as the surface of the moon. Precise measurements of your eye’s surface are helpful when assessing eyes for contact lenses. The scanning and stitching technology improvements have enabled eye doctors to get much more detailed information about the shape and “topography” of your eye, and do it in seconds rather than hours. Four patents have been issued as result of innovations driven by the Webb telescope program. “These tools are now used to align and build the next generation of measuring devices for human eyes,” Neal said.

“The lasting impact of the Webb telescope may go beyond the vision of astronomers seeking to see the distant universe; the impact may be a better national technology base and better vision for people everywhere,” Hull said.

NASA’s Innovative Partnerships Program Office (IPPO) is making available wavefront sensing and adaptive optics technologies, procedures and lab equipment to private industry through its “Can you See it Now?” campaign. All of the technologies associated with the campaign are available for licensing and can be found at http://ipp.gsfc.nasa.gov/wavefront.

Webb Telescope FAQs

How is the James Webb Space Telescope different than the Hubble Space Telescope? What will JWST be looking for when it begins operating? In this short video, NASA astrophysicist Dr. Amber Straughn answers questions, and offers facts and images to explain what the Webb Space Telescope will tell us about the cosmos.

JWST Sunscreen Offers SPF 1,000,000

The James Webb Space Telescope will have a sunshield that is about the size of a tennis court, and mission managers say it will offer the best “SPF” (Sun Protection Factor) in the Universe.

“Each of the five layers of the shield is less than half the thickness of a piece of paper,” said John Durning, Deputy Project Manager for JWST. “The five work together to create an effective SPF of 1,000,000.”

This sunshield protects the observatory from unwanted light, keeping it cool and allowing it to detect heat from faraway objects in the universe. So, how do you get something that large into orbit?
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