American manufacturing is critical to the development of NASA’s scientific instruments, satellites and telescopes – specifically the James Webb Space Telescope. The telescope, often referred to as JWST, will be the premier observatory of the next decade, studying every phase in the history of our universe from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.
In order to observe these cosmic wonders, numerous technologies have been developed here on Earth by American manufacturers.
The heart of the telescope is its primary imager, an infrared camera that will, among other things, detect light from the earliest stars and galaxies in the process of formation. The Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) is equipped with coronagraphs, instruments that allow astronomers to take pictures of very faint objects around a central bright object, like stellar systems. Built by the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin, NIRCam will allow astronomers to determine the characteristics of planets orbiting other stars.
JWST will house four primary instruments on board. ATK developed and manufactured the special lightweight, high-strength, cryo-capable composite structure that holds all those instruments.
The instruments on board the Webb telescope must be cooled to a temperature below 50 degrees Kelvin to allow them to see these faint infrared emissions from astronomical objects. The solution – large sunshields acting as an umbrella to block the heat of the Sun. Sheldahl, a Minnesota company that specializes in advanced coated films, developed manufacturing techniques to apply the coatings to large continuous rolls of Kapton, which make up the sunshade membranes. Those membranes are being built by another American company, NeXolve. The sunshield membranes must fold around the telescope before it deploys in space.
Perhaps the most impressive feature of the Webb telescope is its mirrors, which were manufactured entirely in America, from the raw material mined in Utah to the forming, machining and polishing in Ohio, Alabama and California. Ball Aerospace, Axsys, Brush Wellman, and Tinsley Laboratories developed new mirror manufacturing technology to create the most advanced space telescope mirrors ever produced. Each of the 18 primary mirror segments are made of beryllium, which was selected for its stiffness, light weight and stability at cryogenic temperatures. Bare beryllium is not very reflective of near-infrared light, so each mirror is coated with gold. The microscopic gold coating enables the mirrors to efficiently reflect infrared light (which is what the Webb telescope's cameras see). In the last part of 2012, the secondary mirror and three primary mirror segments were delivered by Ball Aerospace in a trailer truck to Goddard Space Flight Center for assembly with the rest of the telescope.
Not only will these manufacturing techniques allow NASA to deploy its most sophisticated telescope to date, but what we learn from developing these innovative processes benefit American manufacturers here on Earth.
Date: Feb 21, 2013