Using Atmospheric Beacons to Search for Signs of Extra-Terrestrial Life

Despite the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered by astronomers in recent years, determining whether or not any of them are habitable is a major challenge. Since we cannot study these planets directly, scientists are forced to look for indirect indications. These are known as biosignatures, which consist of the chemical byproducts we associate with organic life showing up in a planet’s atmosphere.

A new study by a team of NASA scientists proposes a new method to search for potential signs of life beyond our Solar System. The key, they recommend, is to takes advantage of frequent stellar storms from cool, young dwarf stars. These storms hurl huge clouds of stellar material and radiation into space, interacting with exoplanet atmospheres and producing biosignatures that could be detected.

The study, titled “Atmospheric Beacons of Life from Exoplanets Around G and K Stars“, recently appeared in Nature Scientific Reports. Led by Vladimir S. Airapetian, a senior astrophysicist with the Heliophysics Science Division (HSD) at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the team included members from NASA’s Langley Research Center, the Science Systems and Applications Incorporated (SSAI), and the American University.

Beacons of life could help researchers identify potentially habitable worlds. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Mary Pat Hrybyk

Traditionally, researchers have searched for signs of oxygen and methane in exoplanet atmospheres, since these are well-known byproducts of organic processes. Over time, these gases accumulate, reaching amounts that could be detected using spectroscopy. However, this approach is time-consuming and requires that astronomers spend days trying to observe spectra from a distant planet.

But according to Airapetian and his colleagues, it is possible to search for cruder signatures on potentially habitable worlds. This approach would rely on existing technology and resources and would take considerably less time. As Airapetian explained in a NASA press release:

“We’re in search of molecules formed from fundamental prerequisites to life — specifically molecular nitrogen, which is 78 percent of our atmosphere. These are basic molecules that are biologically friendly and have strong infrared emitting power, increasing our chance of detecting them.”

Using life on Earth as a template, Airapetian and his team designed a new method to look or signs of water vapor, nitrogen and oxygen gas byproducts in exoplanets atmospheres. The real trick, however, is to take advantage of the kinds of extreme space weather events that occur with active dwarf stars. These events, which expose planetary atmospheres to bursts of radiation, cause chemical reactions that astronomers can pick on.

Artist’s impression of the cool red star above a distant exoplanet. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

When it comes to stars like our Sun, a G-type yellow dwarf, such weather events are common when they are still young. However, other yellow and orange stars are known to remain active for billions of years, producing storms of energetic, charged particles. And M-type (red dwarf) stars, the most common type in the Universe, remain active throughout their long-lives, periodically subjecting their planets to mini-flares.

When these reach an exoplanet, they react with the atmosphere and cause the chemical dissociation of nitrogen (N²) and oxygen (O²) gas into single atoms, and water vapor into hydrogen and oxygen. The broken down nitrogen and oxygen atoms then cause a cascade of chemical reactions which produce hydroxyl (OH), more molecular oxygen (O), and nitric oxide (NO) – what scientists refer to as “atmospheric beacons”.

When starlight hits a planet’s atmosphere, these beacon molecules absorb the energy and emit infrared radiation. By examining the particular wavelengths of this radiation, scientists are able to determine what chemical elements are present. The signal strength of these elements is also an indication of atmospheric pressure. Taken together, these readings allow scientist’s to determine an atmosphere’s density and composition.

For decades, astronomers have also used a model to calculate how ozone (O³) is formed in Earth’s atmosphere from oxygen that is exposed to solar radiation. Using this same model – and pairing it with space weather events that are expected from cool, active stars – Airapetian and his colleagues sought to calculate just how much nitric oxide and hydroxyl would form in an Earth-like atmosphere and how much ozone would be destroyed.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s TIMED spacecraft, which has been observing Earth’s upper atmosphere for 15 years. Credits: NASA/JHU-APL

To accomplish this, they consulted data from NASA’s Thermosphere Ionosphere Mesosphere Energetics Dynamics (TIMED) mission, which has been studying the formation of beacons in Earth’s atmosphere for years. Specifically, they used data from its Sounding of the Atmosphere using Broadband Emission Radiometry (SABER) instrument, which allowed them to simulate how infrared observations of these beacons might appear in exoplanet atmospheres.

As Martin Mlynczak, the SABER associate principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center and a co-author of the paper, indicated:

“Taking what we know about infrared radiation emitted by Earth’s atmosphere, the idea is to look at exoplanets and see what sort of signals we can detect. If we find exoplanet signals in nearly the same proportion as Earth’s, we could say that planet is a good candidate for hosting life.”

What they found was that the frequency of intense stellar storms was directly related to the strength of the heat signals coming from the atmospheric beacons. The more storms occur, the more beacon molecules are created, generating a signal strong enough to be observed from Earth with a space telescope, and based on just two hours of observation time.

An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist's impression). Via the IAU.
An exoplanet seen from its moon (artist’s impression). Credit: IAU

They also found that this kind of method can weed out exoplanets that do not possess an Earth-like magnetic field, which naturally interact with charged particles from the Sun. The presence of such a field is what ensures that a planet’s atmosphere is not stripped away, and is therefore essential to habitability. As Airapetian explained:

“A planet needs a magnetic field, which shields the atmosphere and protects the planet from stellar storms and radiation. If stellar winds aren’t so extreme as to compress an exoplanet’s magnetic field close to its surface, the magnetic field prevents atmospheric escape, so there are more particles in the atmosphere and a stronger resulting infrared signal.”

This new model is significant for several reasons. On the one hand, it shows how research that has enabled detailed studies of Earth’s atmosphere and how it interacts with space weather is now being put towards the study of exoplanets. It is also exciting because it could allow for new studies of exoplanet habitability around certain classes of stars – ranging from many types of yellow and orange stars to cool, red dwarf stars.

Red dwarfs are the most common type of star in the Universe, accounting for 70% of stars in spiral galaxies and 90% in elliptical galaxies. What’s more, based on recent discoveries, astronomers estimate that red dwarf stars are very likely to have systems of rocky planets. The research team also anticipates that next-generation space instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope will increase the likelihood of finding habitable planets using this model.

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the star Alpha Centauri B, a member of the triple star system that is the closest to Earth. Credit: ESO

As William Danchi, a Goddard senior astrophysicist and co-author on the study, said:

“New insights on the potential for life on exoplanets depend critically on interdisciplinary research in which data, models and techniques are utilized from NASA Goddard’s four science divisions: heliophysics, astrophysics, planetary and Earth sciences. This mixture produces unique and powerful new pathways for exoplanet research.”

Until such time that we are able to study exoplanets directly, any development that makes biosignatures more discernible and easier to detect is incredibly valuable. In the coming years, Project Blue and Breakthrough Starshot are hoping to conduct the first direct studies of the Alpha Centauri system. But in the meantime, improved models that allow us to survey countless other stars for potentially habitable exoplanets are golden!

Not only will they vastly improve our understanding of just how common such planets are, they might just point us in the direction of one or more Earth 2.0s!

Further Reading: NASA, Nature Scientific Reports

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope Launch Delayed to 2019

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NASA’s $8.8 Billion James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and is the scientific successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

………….

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

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

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Sampler Slingshots Around Earth Friday, Sept. 22 – Catch It If You Can!

Artist’s concept shows the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft passing by Earth on Sept. 22, 2017. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FL – Barely a year after NASA’s OSIRIS-REx robotic asteroid sampler launched on a trailblazing mission to snatch a soil sample from a pristine asteroid and return it to Earth for research analysis, the probe is speeding back home for a swift slingshot around our home planet on Friday Sept. 22 to gain a gravity assist speed boost required to complete its journey to the carbon rich asteroid Bennu and back.

As it swings by Earth NASA’s first ever asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, and Security – Regolith Explorer), will pass only 11,000 miles (17,000 kilometers) above Earth just before 12:52 p.m. EDT on Friday.

And NASA is asking the public to try and ‘Catch It If You Can’ – by waving hello and/or taking snapshots during and after the probes high speed flyby.

Plus you can watch NASA Facebook Live event at Noon Friday: https://www.facebook.com/NASAGoddard/

OSIRIS-REx will be approaching Earth at a velocity of about 19,000 mph on Friday as it begins flying over Australia during the Earth Gravity Assist (EGA) maneuver.

Since blastoff from the Florida Space Coast on Sept. 8, 2016 the probe has already racked up almost 600 million miles on its round trip journey from Earth and back to set up Friday’s critical gravity assist maneuver to Bennu and back.

As OSIRIS-REx continues along its flight path the spacecraft will reach its closest point to Earth over Antarctica, just south of Cape Horn, Chile. It will gain a velocity boost of about 8400 mph.

The spacecraft will also conduct a post flyby science campaign by collecting images and science observations of Earth and the Moon four hours after closest approach to calibrate its five science instruments.

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft, return capsule and payload fairings inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility high bay at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center is being processed for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The allure of Bennu is that it is a carbon rich asteroid – thus OSIRIS-REx could potentially bring back samples infused with the organic chemicals like amino acids that are the building blocks of life as we know it.

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation,” OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told Universe Today in a prelaunch interview with the spacecraft in the cleanroom at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The do or die gravity assist plunge is absolutely essential to set OSIRIS-REx on course to match the asteroid’s path and speed when it reaches the vicinity of asteroid Bennu a year from now in October 2018.

“The Earth Gravity Assist is a clever way to move the spacecraft onto Bennu’s orbital plane using Earth’s own gravity instead of expending fuel,” says Lauretta, of the University of Arizona, Tucson.

Just how close to Earth will OSIRIS-REx be during its flyby on Friday? The spacecraft will come within 11,000 miles (17,000 km) of the Earth’s surface as it passes over Antarctica at 12:52 a.m. EDT. on Sept. 22, 2017. Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/University of Arizona

Bennu’s orbit around the Sun is tilted at a six-degree inclination with respect to Earth’s orbital plane.

The asteroid is 1,614-foot (500 m) in diameter and crosses Earth’s orbit around the sun every six years.

Numerous NASA spacecraft – including NASA’s just completed Cassini mission to Saturn – utilize gravity assists around a variety of celestial bodies to gain speed and change course to save vast amounts of propellant and time in order to accomplish science missions and visit additional target objects that would otherwise be impossible.

The flyby will be a nail-biting time for NASA and the science team because right afterwards the refrigerator sized probe will be out of contact with engineers – unable to receive telemetry for about an hour.

“For about an hour, NASA will be out of contact with the spacecraft as it passes over Antarctica,” said Mike Moreau, the flight dynamics system lead at Goddard, in a statement.

“OSIRIS-REx uses the Deep Space Network to communicate with Earth, and the spacecraft will be too low relative to the southern horizon to be in view with either the Deep Space tracking station at Canberra, Australia, or Goldstone, California.”

NASA says the team will regain communication with OSIRIS-REx roughly 50 minutes after closest approach over Antarctica at about 1:40 p.m. EDT.

The post flyby science campaign is set to begin at 4:52 p.m. EDT, Friday, Sept. 22.

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station carrying NASA’s Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, or OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on the first U.S. mission to sample an asteroid, retrieve at least two ounces of surface material and return it to Earth for study. Liftoff was at 7:05 p.m. EDT on September 8, 2016 in this remote camera view taken from inside the launch pad perimeter. Note the newly install crew access arm and white room for astronaut flights atop Atlas starting in early 2018. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft originally departed Earth atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket under crystal clear skies on September 8, 2016 at 7:05 p.m. EDT from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Everything with the launch went exactly according to plan for the daring mission boldly seeking to gather rocks and soil from carbon rich Bennu.

View of science instrument suite and TAGSAM robotic sample return arm on NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Probe is slated for Sep. 8, 2016 launch to asteroid Bennu from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

OSIRIS-Rex is equipped with an ingenious robotic arm named TAGSAM designed to collect at least a 60-gram (2.1-ounce) sample and bring it back to Earth in 2023 for study by scientists using the world’s most advanced research instruments.

“The primary objective of the OSIRIS-Rex mission is to bring back pristine material from the surface of the carbonaceous asteroid Bennu,” OSIRIS-Rex Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta told me in the prelaunch interview in the KSC cleanroom with the spacecraft as the probe was undergoing final launch preparations.

“We are interested in that material because it is a time capsule from the earliest stages of solar system formation.”

“It records the very first material that formed from the earliest stages of solar system formation. And we are really interested in the evolution of carbon during that phase. Particularly the key prebiotic molecules like amino acids, nucleic acids, phosphates and sugars that build up. These are basically the biomolecules for all of life.”

1 day to Earth flyby for OSIRIS-Rex

NASA and the mission team is also inviting the public to get engaged by participating in the Wave to OSIRIS-REx social media campaign.

“Individuals and groups from anywhere in the world are encouraged to take photos of themselves waving to OSIRIS-REx, share them using the hashtag #HelloOSIRISREx and tag the mission account in their posts on Twitter (@OSIRISREx) or Instagram (@OSIRIS_REx).

Participants may begin taking and sharing photos at any time—or wait until the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft makes its closest approach to Earth at 12:52p.m. EDT on Friday, Sept. 22.”

The probe’s flight path during the flyby will pass through the ring of numerous satellites orbiting in geosynchronous orbit, but none are expected to be within close range.

Members of the OSIRIS-REx mission team celebrate the successful spacecraft launch on Sept. 8, 2016 atop ULA Atlas V at the post-launch briefing at the Kennedy Space Center, FL. Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta is 4th from right, NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green is center, 5th from left. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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

Ken Kremer

Dr Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for OSIRIS-REx at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and Dr. Ken Kremer, Universe Today point to NASA’s OSIRIS-REx asteroid sampling spacecraft inside the Payloads Hazardous Servicing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center on Aug. 20, 2016. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Northrop Grumman Acquires Orbital ATK for $9.2 Billion

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

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

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

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

Rumors of the deal first appeared on Sunday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It will also benefit stockholders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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

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

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

Ken Kremer

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

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

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

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

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

NASA’s $8.8 Billion James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and is the scientific successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST).

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

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

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

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

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

Deployment tests of the folded sunshield start in August.

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

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

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

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

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

The 18-segment gold coated primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is raised into vertical alignment in the largest clean room at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016. The secondary mirror mount booms are folded down into stowed for launch configuration. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Technicians work on the James Webb Space Telescope in the massive clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, on Nov. 2, 2016, as the completed golden primary mirror and observatory structure stands gloriously vertical on a work stand, reflecting incoming light from the area and observation deck. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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

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

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

………….

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

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

Bad News For Proxima b: An Earth-Like Atmosphere Might Not Survive There

Back in of August of 2016, the existence of an Earth-like planet right next door to our Solar System was confirmed. To make matters even more exciting, it was confirmed that this planet orbits within its star’s habitable zone too. Since that time, astronomers and exoplanet-hunters have been busy trying to determine all they can about this rocky planet, known as Proxima b. Foremost on everyone’s mind has been just how likely it is to be habitable.

However, numerous studies have emerged since that time that indicate that Proxima b, given the fact that it orbits an M-type (red dwarf), would have a hard time supporting life. This was certainly the conclusion reached in a new study led by researchers from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. As they showed, a planet like Proxima b would not be able to retain an Earth-like atmosphere for very long.

Red dwarf stars are the most common in the Universe, accounting for an estimated 70% of stars in our galaxy alone. As such, astronomers are naturally interested in knowing just how likely they are at supporting habitable planets. And given the distance between our Solar System and Proxima Centauri – 4.246 light years – Proxima b is considered ideal for studying the habitability of red dwarf star systems.

This infographic compares the orbit of the planet around Proxima Centauri (Proxima b) with the same region of the Solar System. Credit: Pale Red Dot

On top of all that, the fact that Proxima b is believed to be similar in size and composition to Earth makes it an especially appealing target for research. The study was led by Dr. Katherine Garcia-Sage of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. As she told Universe Today via email:

“So far, not many Earth-sized exoplanets have been found orbiting in the temperate zone of their star. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist – larger planets are found more often, because they are easier to detect – but Proxima b is of interest because it’s not only Earth-sized and at the right distance from its star, but it’s also orbiting the closest star to our Solar System.”

For the sake of determining the likelihood of Proxima b being habitable, the research team sought to address the chief concerns facing rocky planets that orbit red dwarf stars. These include the planet’s distance from their stars, the variability of red dwarfs, and the presence (or absence) of magnetic fields. Distance is of particular importance, since habitable zones (aka. temperate zones) around red dwarfs are much closer and tighter.

“Red dwarfs are cooler than our own Sun, so the temperate zone is closer to the star than Earth is to the Sun,” said Dr. Garcia-Sage. “But these stars may be very magnetically active, and being so close to a magnetically active star means that these planets are in a very different space environment than what the Earth experiences. At those distances from the star, the ultraviolet and x-ray radiation may be quite large. The stellar wind may be stronger. There could be stellar flares and energetic particles from the star that ionize and heat the upper atmosphere.”

At one time, Mars had a magnetic field similar to Earth, which prevented its atmosphere from being stripped away. Credit: NASA

In addition, red dwarf stars are known for being unstable and variable in nature when compared to our Sun. As such, planets orbiting in close proximity would have to contend with flare ups and intense solar wind, which could gradually strip away their atmospheres. This raises another important aspect of exoplanet habitability research, which is the presence of magnetic fields.

To put it simply, Earth’s atmosphere is protected by a magnetic field that is driven by a dynamo effect in its outer core. This “magnetosphere” has prevented solar wind from stripping our atmosphere away, thus giving life a chance to emerge and evolve. In contrast, Mars lost its magnetosphere roughly 4.2 billion years ago, which led to its atmosphere being depleted and its surface becoming the cold, desiccated place it is today.

To test Proxima b’s potential habitability and capacity to retain liquid surface water, the team therefore assumed the presence of an Earth-like atmosphere and a magnetic field around the planet. They then accounted for the enhanced radiation coming from Proxima b. This was provided by the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), where researchers determined the ultraviolet and x-ray spectrum of Proxima Centauri for this project.

From all of this, they constructed models that began to calculate the rate of atmospheric loss, using Earth’s atmosphere as a template. As Dr. Garcia-Sage explained:

“At Earth, the upper atmosphere is ionized and heated by ultraviolet and x-ray radiation from the Sun. Some of these ions and electrons escape from the upper atmosphere at the north and south poles. We have a model that calculates how fast the upper atmosphere is lost through these processes (it’s not very fast at Earth)… We then used that radiation as the input for our model and calculated a range of possible escape rates for Proxima Centauri b, based on varying levels of magnetic activity.”

Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Proxima b orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The double star Alpha Centauri AB is visible to the upper right of Proxima itself. Credit: ESO

What they found was not very encouraging. In essence, Proxima b would not be able to retain an Earth-like atmosphere when subjected to Proxima Centauri’s intense radiation, even with the presence of a magnetic field. This means that unless Proxima b has had a very different kind of atmospheric history than Earth, it is most likely a lifeless ball of rock.

However, as Dr. Garcia-Sage put it, there are other factors to consider which their study simply can’t account for:

“We found that atmospheric losses are much stronger than they are at Earth, and the for high levels of magnetic activity that we expect at Proxima b, the escape rate was fast enough that an entire Earth-like atmosphere could be lost to space. That doesn’t take into account other things like volcanic activity or impacts with comets that might be able to replenish the atmosphere, but it does mean that when we’re trying to understand what processes shaped the atmosphere of Proxima b, we have to take into account the magnetic activity of the star. And understanding the atmosphere is an important part of understanding whether liquid water could exist on the surface of the planet and whether life could have evolved.”

So it’s not all bad news, but it doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence either. Unless Proxima b is a volcanically-active planet and subject to a lot of cometary impacts, it is not likely be temperate, water-bearing world. Most likely, its climate will be analogous to Mars – cold, dry, and with water existing mostly in the form of ice. And as for indigenous life emerging there, that’s not too likely either.

These and other recent studies have painted a rather bleak picture about the habitability of red dwarf star systems. Given that these are the most common types of stars in the known Universe, the statistical likelihood of finding a habitable planet beyond our Solar System appears to be dropping. Not exactly good news at all for those hoping that life will be found out there within their lifetimes!

But it is important to remember that what we can say definitely at this point about extra-solar planets is limited. In the coming years and decades, next-generation missions – like the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) –  are sure to paint a more detailed picture. In the meantime, there’s still plenty of stars in the Universe, even if most of them are extremely far away!

Further Reading: The Astrophysical Journal Letters

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

NASA Webb Telescope Structure is Sound After Vibration Testing Detects Anomaly

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

NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now deemed “sound” and apparently unscathed, engineers have concluded, based on results from a new batch of intensive inspections of the observatory’s structure, after concerns were raised in early December when technicians initially detected “anomalous readings” during a preplanned series of vibration tests, NASA announced Dec. 23.

After conducting both “visual and ultrasonic examinations” at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, engineers have found it to be safe at this point with “no visible signs of damage.”

But because so much is on the line with NASA’s $8.8 Billion groundbreaking Webb telescope mission that will peer back to nearly the dawn of time, engineers are still investigating the “root cause” of the “vibration anomaly” first detected amidst shake testing on Dec. 3.

“The team is making good progress at identifying the root cause of the vibration anomaly,” NASA explained in a Dec 23 statement – much to everyone’s relief!

“They have successfully conducted two low level vibrations of the telescope.”

“All visual and ultrasonic examinations of the structure continue to show it to be sound.”

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

Starting late November, technicians began a defined series of environmental tests including vibration and acoustics tests to make sure that the telescopes huge optical structure was fit for blastoff and could safely withstand the powerful shaking encountered during a rocket launch and the especially harsh rigors of the space environment. It would be useless otherwise – unable to carry out unparallelled science.

To carry out the vibration and acoustics tests conducted on equipment located in a shirtsleeve environment, the telescope structure was first carefully placed inside a ‘clean tent’ structure to protect it from dirt and grime and maintain the pristine clean room conditions available inside Goddard’s massive clean room – where it has been undergoing assembly for the past year.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope placed inside a “clean tent” in Nov. 2016 to protect it from dust and dirt as engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland transport it out of the relatively dust-free cleanroom and into a shirtsleeve environment to conduct vibration and acoustics tests to confirm it is fit for launch in 2018. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

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.

“The James Webb Space Telescope is undergoing testing to make sure the spacecraft withstands the harsh conditions of launch, and to find and remedy all possible concerns before it is launched from French Guiana in 2018.”

However, shortly after the vibration testing began technicians soon discovered unexpected “anomalous readings” during a shake test of the telescope on Dec. 3, as the agency initially announced in a status update on the JWST website.

The anomalous readings were found during one of the vibration tests in progress on the shaker table, via accelerometers attached to the observatories optical structure known as OTIS.

“During the vibration testing on December 3, at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, accelerometers attached to the telescope detected anomalous readings during a particular test,” the team elaborated.

So the team quickly conducted further “low level vibration” tests and inspections to more fully understand the nature of the anomaly, as well as scrutinize the accelerometer data for clues.

“Further tests to identify the source of the anomaly are underway. The engineering team investigating the vibe anomaly has made numerous detailed visual inspections of the Webb telescope and has found no visible signs of damage.”

“They are continuing their analysis of accelerometer data to better determine the source of the anomaly.”

The team is measuring and recording the responses of the structure to the fresh low level vibration tests and will compare these new data to results obtained prior to detection of the anomaly.

Work continues over the holidays to ensure Webb is safe and sound and can meet its 2018 launch target. After thoroughly reviewing all the data the team hope to restart the planned vibration and acoustic testing in the new year.

“Currently, the team is continuing their analyses with the goal of having a review of their findings, conclusions and plans for resuming vibration testing in January.”

Webb’s massive optical structure being tested is known as OTIS or Optical Telescope element and Integrated Science. It includes the fully assembled 18-segment gold coated primary mirror and the science instrument module housing the four science instruments

OTIS is a combination of the OTE (Optical Telescope Assembly) and the ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module) together.

“OTIS is essentially the entire optical train of the observatory!” said John Durning, Webb Telescope Deputy Project Manager, in an earlier exclusive interview with Universe Today at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

“It’s the critical photon path for the system.”

The components were fully integrated this past summer at Goddard.

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).

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.

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

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

Ken Kremer/Universe Today reflecting in and about the golden mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope which will peer back 13.5 Billion years to unravel the mysteries off the formation of the early Universe and tell us how our place in the Universe came to be. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

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”

James Webb Space Telescope Mirror Installation Reaches Halfway Point

As history closes in on 2015, assembly of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reached a historic milestone as the installation of the primary mirrors onto the telescope structure reached the halfway point to completion and marks the final assembly phase of the colossal observatory.

Technicians have just installed the ninth of 18 primary flight mirrors onto the mirror holding backplane structure at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Continue reading “James Webb Space Telescope Mirror Installation Reaches Halfway Point”