NASA bangs, freezes next generation space telescope into shape

If you had a multimillion dollar, extremely sensitive instrument that you needed to move the last thing you'd do is subject it to temperatures of -266 degrees Celsius and put it on a rocket that promises to shake it to pieces.  But that's exactly what NASA is doing with the James Webb space telescope as they bang it around in tests that will make sure the device makes it onto space likely by 2013.

NASA this week said in fact that model components of the James Webb telescope have passed a rigorous series of bolt breaking, environmentally challenging tests that will let engineers begin building parts of the actual instrument.

 According to NASA the Webb telescope will be the most sensitive infrared space telescope ever built. It is designed to see the farthest galaxies in the universe and the light of the first stars; study young planetary systems; and look for conditions suitable for life on planets around other stars.

The telescope will feature a large mirror, a little over 21-feet in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both the mirror and sunshade won't fit onto the rocket fully open, so both will fold up and open only once the telescope is in outer space, NASA said. The system will reside in an orbit about 1 million miles from the Earth.

Key the James Web will be its Mid-Infrared Instrument which is the telescope's longest-wavelength instrument and will operate between so-called mid-infrared wavelengths of 5 through 28.5 microns (a micron is about 1/100 the width of a human hair). It will be the most sensitive mid-infrared detector ever flown in space, NASA said. It will also be the coldest. A refrigerator system onboard the Webb telescope will chill the Mid-Infrared Instrument down to temperatures as low as 266 degrees below zero Celsius -- significantly colder than the telescope's other instruments.

NASA engineers have to take this cold temperature into account, so the instrument will have three detectors housed in insulated, brick-like structures called focal plane modules, NASA said. The detectors have to be perfectly aligned within these brick structures, so that when the cold shrinks the various materials, they do not become misaligned.

The James Webb will also be getting a network interface called "SpaceWire" which is a standard for high-speed links and networks for use onboard a spacecraft, easing the interconnection of sensors, mass-memories and processing units. The telescope is a 21st century space observatory that will look back more than 13 billion years in time to understand the formation of galaxies, stars and planets and the evolution of our own solar system, NASA said.

The telescope is an international collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center is managing the development effort. The prime contractor is Northrop Grumman Space Technologies; the Space Telescope Science Institute will operate the system after launch.

NASA recently finished similar stress testing of its Lunar spacecraft.   In July, NASA said its spaceship successfully completed a series of stress-inducing tests to ensure it can make the rugged flight to the moon where it is expected to map the lunar surface in preparation for manned moon missions planned to take off by 2020. NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter was spun and vibrated to determine the spacecraft's center of gravity and characteristics of its rotation. During vibration testing, engineers checked the structural integrity of the lunar probe aboard a large, shaking table that simulated the rigorous ride the orbiter will meet during liftoff aboard an Atlas rocket, NASA said.

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