James Webb is Enduring its Final Stage of Testing Before it Ships off for Kourou, French Guiana

Once deployed, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most powerful telescope ever built. 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 the look back at the earliest stars and galaxies, study the Solar System in depth, and help characterize extra-solar planets (among other things).

Unfortunately, the launch of the JWST has been subject to multiple delays, with the launch date now set for some time in 2019. Luckily, on Thursday, March 8th, engineers at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters began the final step in the observatory’s integration and testing. Once complete, the JWST will be ready to ship to French Guiana, where it will be launched into space.

This final phase consisted of removing the combined optics and science instruments from their shipping containers – known as the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) – which recently arrived after being testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. This constitutes half the observatory, and includes the telescope’s 6.5 meter (21.3 foot) golden primary mirror.

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

The science payload was also tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center last year to ensure it could handle the vibrations associated with space launches and the temperatures and vacuum conditions of space. The other half of the observatory consists of the integrated spacecraft and sunshield, which is in the final phase of assembly at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters.

These will soon undergo a launch environment test to prove that they are ready to be combined with the science payload. Once both halves are finished being integrated, addition testing will be performed to guarantee the  fully assembled observatory can operate at the L2 Earth-Sun Lagrange Point. As Eric Smith, the program director for the JWST at NASA Headquarters, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“Extensive and rigorous testing prior to launch has proven effective in ensuring that NASA’s missions achieve their goals in space. Webb is far along into its testing phase and has seen great success with the telescope and science instruments, which will deliver the spectacular results we anticipate.”

These final tests are crucial to ensuring that that the observatory deploys properly and can operate once it is in space. This is largely because of the telescope’s complicated design, which needs to be folded in order to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that it will carry it into space. Once it reaches its destination, the telescope will have to unfold again, deploying its sunshield, mirrors and primary mirror.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield being deployed inside a cleanroom at Northrop Grumman’s company headquarter’s, in October 2017. Credits: Northrop Grumman

Not only does all of this represented a very technically-challenging feet, it is the first time that any space telescope has had to perform it. Beyond that, there are also the technical challenges of building a complex observatory that is designed to operate in space. While the JWST’s optics and science instruments were all built at room temperature here on Earth, they had to be designed to operate at cryogenic temperatures.

As such, its mirrors had to be precisely polished and formed that they would achieve the correct shape once they cool in space. Similarly, its sunshield will be operating in a zero gravity environment, but was built and tested here on Earth where the gravity is a hefty 9.8 m/s² (1 g). In short, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most complex space telescope ever built, and is one of NASA’s highest priority science projects.

It is little wonder then why NASA has had to put the JWST through such a highly-rigorous testing process. As Smith put it:

“At NASA, we do the seemingly impossible every day, and it’s our job to do the hardest things humankind can think of for space exploration. The way we achieve success is to test, test and retest, so we understand the complex systems and verify they will work.”

The James Webb Space Telescope (which is scheduled to launch in 2019) will be the most powerful telescope ever deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL

Knowing that the JWST is now embarking on the final phase of its development – and that its engineers are confident it will perform up to task – is certainly good news. Especially in light of a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which stated that more delays were likely and that the project would probably exceed its original budget cap of $8 billion.

As the report indicated, it is the final phase of integration and testing where problems are most likely to be found and schedules revised. However, the report also stated that “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.”

In other words, there is no indication whatsoever that Congress is considering cancelling the project, regardless of further delays or cost overruns. And when the JWST is deployed, it will use its 6.5 meter (21-foot) infrared-optimized telescopes will search to a distance of over 13 billion light years, allow astronomers to study the atmospheres of Solar Planets, exoplanets, and other objects within our Solar System.

So while the JWST may not make its launch window in 2019, we can still expect that it will be taking to space in the near future. And when it does, we can also expect that what it reveals about our Universe will be mind-blowing!

Further Reading: NASA

Webb Telescope Gets its Science Instruments Installed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The primary mirror is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about ISIM and upcoming testing in the next story.

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

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

Ken Kremer

Unveiled Webb Telescope Mirrors Mesmerize in ‘Golden’ Glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything proceeded according to the meticulously choreographed schedule.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are four mirror surfaces,” Durning said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about ISIM in the next story.

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

Time-lapse Video Documents Assembly of Webb Telescope Primary Mirror

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

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

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

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