First JWST Instrument Passes Tests

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One of many instruments that will fly aboard the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has just passed critical testing at ESA facilities in the UK. “MIRI”, the Mid-InfraRed Instrument, is being developed by the ESA as a vital part of the JWST mission. Researchers will use MIRI to study exoplanets, distant galaxies, comets and dust-shrouded star forming regions.  In order to work correctly and provide useful data, MIRI needs to consistently operate at temperatures of around 7 kelvin. (-266° C). How do engineers test these components to make sure they work properly in harsh conditions of space?

At the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council’s RAL Space in Oxfordshire, engineers performed tests to ensure the entire instrument assembly works as designed.  Inside the test chamber, special “targets” were used to help simulate scientific observations. The simulated observations will scientists develop the software necessary to calibrate MIRI after JWST’s launch. Based on the initial results of testing, the engineers believe MIRI is working properly and will perform all required science functions extremely well.

Peter Jakobsen, ESA JWST Project Scientist, said,  “Future users of JWST and MIRI are looking forward to learning more about the detailed performance of the instrument once the test results are analysed further in the coming months. The experience gained by the MIRI test team throughout this campaign has sown the seeds for a rich scientific harvest from the JWST mission.”

In the same ESA press release,  Gillian Wright, Principal Investigator and lead of the MIRI European Science Team added, “It is inspiring to see MIRI working extremely well at its operating temperature after so many years in development. The test campaign has been a resounding success and the whole MIRI team can be very proud of this magnificent achievement.”

Sean Keen making adjustments to MIRI during environmental testing in RAL Space's thermal vacuum chamber on August 16th. 2011.

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. In a testament to the dedication of the teams involved in JWST’s construction, work continues despite the uncertain fate of the JWST mission.

Aside from the MIRI instrument passing testing, over half of JWST’s mirrors have been polished and coated. Several of the mirror segments have passed rigorous testing, and at this time, nearly three-quarters of JWST’s hardware is being built or tested.

A screenshot of a JWST mirror segment in the laser testing facility at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. Credit: John O'Connor, NASA Tech.

Above is a screenshot of a larger panoramic image from the NASA Tech website, showing one of the JWST mirror segments being tested in a laser testing facility at Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado. You can see several panoramic views of the mirror testing at NASA Tech. These are big files, but are well worth the view! Just go to the main page and scroll down for the JWST panoramas.

If you’d like to learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope, visit: http://www.jwst.nasa.gov or: http://webbtelescope.org/webb_telescope

Resources on how you can contact your representative to express support for JWST can be found at: http://savethistelescope.blogspot.com.

You can also read a statement by the American Astronomical Society regarding JWST at: http://aas.org/node/4483 Source: ESA News Release