What if I said to you, I want you to build a space telescope 100 times more powerful than the human race has ever known? To achieve that power you need to build it so big that it won’t fit on a rocket in one piece – so it will have to know how to build itself – and it will need to do this in conditions harsher than we can effectively simulate here to test it. Oh and you only get one shot at it because it’s going to live where repairmen can’t reach.
Well, earlier this week, I had the pleasure of attending Northrup Grumman’s special screening of Into the Unknown – a documentary film that tells the story of the scientists and engineers who have taken up this challenge in building NASA’s hotly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope.
Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope and, boy, what a sequel. We learned that the new telescope will be the most powerful space telescope ever built, designed to provide images of the first galaxies formed and to help us see and study unexplored planets around distant stars.
The Webb telescope will be so powerful; in fact, that from Earth it would be able to detect a bumblebee on the moon.
The engineering feat is almost beyond comprehension. Once in position, Webb will experience temperatures three times colder than any on Earth. While these temperatures can be simulated on Earth using cryotherapy technology, the James Webb telescope is so enormous that no cryogenic chamber is big enough to house it for testing.
Back when Hubble was deployed it experienced some technical problems that meant a team of engineers had to be sent up into orbit to fix them. Luckily, this was extremely effective and Hubble has gone on to not only achieve its aims but has exceeded them by some margin. With a project as ambitious as James Webb, keeping it within touching distance is simply not an option. If something goes wrong at deployment, the teams will have to rely on the back-ups systems that they’ve been able to predict might be needed and built into the system to be operated remotely. NASA engineer, Juli Lander, who was answering questions after the film screening, explained that they’ve tried to iron out as many single points of failure as they can, but it’s impossible to eradicate them all.
The sunshield, for example, which will protect the integrity of Webb’s data by keeping out any external sources of light and heat, seems to be the biggest source of nerves for the team. It’s made up of five layers so delicate that, on the way into space, they need to be held in place by 100 individual devices, all of which will have to release effectively for the sun shield to be deployed.
For me, almost as exciting as the discoveries Webb could make is the role it can play in capturing the imaginations of our future scientists and engineers. In the way that Hubble has excited the public about space exploration again, a new generation will follow the journey of the James Webb telescope from the moment it launches late next year, and undoubtedly this will encourage many to consider how they can be a part of such pioneering projects in the future.
Indeed, perhaps the most poignant moment in the film came in a casual conversation with Amy Lo, a systems engineer at Northrup Grumman, talking about her career choices. She said, quite rightly, “What else would you want to do with your life?”
You can watch the full film here.
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