Engineers Perform “Heart Surgery” on James Webb Space Telescope



Airbus Defense and Space experts complete a delicate surgical procedure to exchange key components from the “heart” of Hubble’s replacement.

Artist impression of the James Webb Space Telescope

August 2013 James Webb Space Telescope mural image. (Artist’s impression.) Credits: Northrop Grumman, NASA

NASA announced the success of a procedure to upgrade a key component of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). JWST is the successor to NASA’s hugely successful Hubble Space Telescope. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built and will revolutionize the discovery and examination of planets beyond our solar system.

The telescope will fly four main instruments that will “detect light from distant stars and galaxies, and planets orbiting other stars.” The engineers carried out the surgery in order to upgrade one of the instruments, the Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec). 

According to the NASA press release:

Once in space, NIRSpec will be capable of measuring the spectrum of up to one hundred objects simultaneously. With this tool, scientists will be capable of observing large samples of galaxies and stars at unprecedented depths across large swaths of the Universe and far back in time.

To make this remarkable achievement possible, Goddard scientists and engineers had to invent a new device. This so-called Micro Shutter Array (MSA) controls whether light from an astronomical object in the telescope field of view enters the NIRSpec. The MSA consists of just under a quarter of a million individually controlled microshutters. Each shutter is approximately as wide as a human hair.

Maurice te Plate, Webb system integration and test manager for ESA, was quoted as saying:

We exchanged two very crucial subsystems, NIRSpec’s Focal Plane Array and the Micro Shutter. We were working deep in the heart of the instrument. We used laser trackers and special camera systems to make sure that everything was accurately aligned. We’ve had very good support from NASA and we’ve had a great team from Airbus DS Germany that was super professional and dedicated.

The engineers, after donning special anti-dust clothing, began work each day in total darkness. They next used specialized flashlights to inspect NIRSpec for fibers, which could “weave through the micro shutters and prevent them from properly closing.”

According to Delivery Support Manager Ralf Ehrenwinkler:

To prepare for this operation we planned for a year. We performed everything in a different environment so it’s an added challenge. We needed to copy the same clean room environment as the instrument was integrated in Germany, so we needed to establish special clothes and requirements. There was a lot of coordination. The recorded data showed that the required cleanliness levels were well achieved.

NIRSpec weighs about 430 pounds (195 kg), about as much as an upright piano. It is one of four instruments that will fly aboard the Webb telescope. The other instruments include the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), and the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS).

Click here for more information about the Webb telescope.

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