Scientists and engineers have been working for years to develop ten technologies for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, like big mirrors that will actually move around in space and computer software that will make it happen, or the materials that make up a giant sunshield as big as a tennis court. These and other inventions have now passed approvals at NASA. The approvals mean that they can go from the laboratory to being manufactured to fly on the telescope.
When all of these technologies are put together on the telescope, scientists will use them to study the first generation of stars and galaxies that formed about 400 million years after the Big Bang. This is no small feat. Looking at starlight is like looking back in time, because it takes the light from those stars years to get to Earth. Light moves at 186,000 miles per second so imagine how far you have to travel to get from a star 50 light-years away from Earth.
Scientists now think that all of these inventions will be able to survive the flight into space and work correctly. Among the new technologies are: near and mid-infrared detectors, sunshield materials, microshutters and wavefront sensing and control. All inventions, with the exception of wavefront sensing and control are "cryogenic," which means icy cold. It's important for these pieces to be kept cold because the telescope will be reading heat and light from stars, and heat from instruments would get in the way of a good reading.
The icy cold technologies include: lightweight cryogenic mirrors, cryogenic detector readout application-specific integrated circuit, cryogenic heat switches, a cryocooler for the mid-infrared instrument, and a large precision cryogenic structure.
Many of the technologies have never been seen before on any satellite or space telescope. The Microshutters and the Wavefront Sensing and Control are just two examples.
Microshutters are tiny doorways the width of a few hairs that will allow scientists to remotely and systematically block out unwanted light and view the most distant stars and galaxies humans have ever seen. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the first to use this technology.
Wavefront Sensing and Control refers to a set of algorithms (complex mathematical equations) and software programs that will help determine the best position for each of the telescope's mirrors, and will adjust their positions if necessary. The technology will enable the mirrors to function as one very sensitive telescope to look deep into space and time.
NASA reviewed the inventions now, which is early in the development of the telescope, because scientists wanted to see if the new technologies were ready to be included in the mission. They also wanted to make sure that the inventions would enable the space telescope to do its expected job. "This early test was our attempt to address one common problem that NASA missions encounter that leads to increased costs," said Eric Smith, James Webb Space Telescope program scientist at NASA Headquarters, Washington. "That problem is late maturation of technology in a program’s life-cycle."
Scientists and engineers from other places are helping NASA develop these inventions. They include: Northrop Grumman Corporation, Ball Aerospace Corporation, Teledyne Imaging Systems, Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab, Alliant Techsystems, Sheldahl, and Raytheon Vision Systems.
The telescope is planned for launch in 2013.
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