Engineers at Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) have confirmed how the James Webb Space Telescope's five ultra-thin sunshield layers are attached, folded and stowed for launch using the Sunshield Full-Scale Mockup test article. The company is leading the telescope design and development effort for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.
The operation is an important part of risk reduction efforts to confirm the sunshield designs are correct before making the final commitment to produce all of the flight hardware. This recent activity focused on the fits between aligning and attaching the folded sunshield membrane layers to the sunshield support structure.
"Checkouts like this allow us to validate the designs in full scale to make absolutely sure they are correct," explained Andy Tao, Webb telescope chief sunshield engineer, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "This is one of the things we need to do as we transition into full-scale production of the flight sunshield. It has helped us prove out some important processes we developed specifically for Webb."
The mockup sunshield membranes were folded with key features aligning the sunshield structure, validating the sunshield stowed design approach. This test confirmed the process used to locate the membrane attachment points, a significant risk reduction milestone and step to flight membrane production. The operation will be repeated next year with a higher fidelity set of sunshield membranes.
Engineers and technicians conducted a precision lift of the 2.8 ton telescope mockup, placed it on the sunshield/spacecraft model and attached it. The sunshield structure holding the test membranes were folded up against the mockup simulating the stowed configuration of the observatory during launch. Engineering evaluations were then performed, which included clearance measurements on how the stowed structure fit to the test membranes.
The sunshield material, made of a tough plastic film, Kapton (r)E, is only one-to two-thousandths of an inch thick, about as thick as a human hair, and covers a surface area the size of a tennis court. The layers are separated from each other and held in place by spreader bars and deployable booms. The sunshield deflects sunlight to keep the telescope operating at temperatures near -400 degrees F so Webb's science instruments can see into the most distant galaxies.
Successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is the world's next-generation space observatory. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built. Webb will observe the most distant objects in the universe, provide images of the very first galaxies ever formed and study planets around distant stars. The Webb Telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
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