World's Biggest Space Telescope Heads to Johnson Space Center

The James Webb Space Telescope is heading to Houston's Johnson Space Center, its next stop before the big launch in October 2018.
The James Webb Space Telescope is heading to Houston's Johnson Space Center, its next stop before the big launch in October 2018.
Image from NASA

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, slated to be launched in October 2018, is almost ready to go. Once it is launched into space, the telescope, named after NASA's second administrator, James Webb, who oversaw the Apollo missions, will capture views of the dimmest and oldest galaxies in the universe, and gaze into cloudy nebulas where stars and planetary systems are formed.

But first, the enormous telescope, the largest space telescope in the world, is bound for Houston.

The Webb telescope recently wrapped up its final testing at the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which means it is now slated to undergo more tests at the Johnson Space Center.

“The Webb telescope is about to embark on its next step in reaching the stars as it has successfully completed its integration and testing at Goddard,” Bill Ochs, NASA's Webb telescope project manager, stated. "It has taken a tremendous team of talented individuals to get to this point from all across NASA, our industry, and international partners and academia.”

The telescope, viewed by NASA as the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, has been in the works for more than 20 years. After construction was completed last year, NASA got started testing the space telescope out. The plan is to send the telescope into space where it will be undertaking a broad range of astronomical and cosmological investigations, and it would be the worst if, after all this time and money, the thing broke in space.

Thus, the telescope will be thoroughly put through its paces before it launches. There was a "severe sound" test to make sure the telescope can withstand the noise and vibrations it will experience when it's launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. To make sure the telescope has what it takes to handle the rigors of being launched into space, it was exposed to simulated shaking forces that caused it to vibrate from five to 100 times per second during the sound and vibration tests. (Think the loudest, angriest Swedish death metal ever being blasted directly into your ears.)

Then engineers ran a final test at Goddard to make sure the telescope's mirrors hadn't been warped by all the other tests. They weren't kidding around with this one either. The engineers measured how lasers reflected off the gold mirrors on the telescope to make sure they had not been warped during the testing. The mirrors are made of beryllium and covered in a microscopically thin layer of gold and are designed to optimize observing infrared light. Again, the telescope passed with flying colors, according to NASA.

Now, the Webb telescope is ready to leave Goddard entirely and head to the JSC and the most extreme tests of all.

Once it arrives at the JSC, the telescope's optics will be popped into the famed Chamber A, an enormous thermal-vacuum test facility where the Apollo spacecraft was tested out before the mission crew actually launched in it. Once the telescope is inside that thing, it will be cooled to 11 degrees above absolute zero. (That's minus 440 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 262 degrees Celsius, a.k.a. really friggin' cold.)

NASA engineers will also be checking out all of its instruments, including a 6.5-meter-wide primary mirror and the 18 hexagonal gold mirrors, a near InfraRed Camera (NIRCam), Near InfraRed Spectrograph (NIRSpec), and Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), according to NASA.

If the telescope does well in this round of tests, it will go on to Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, for its final testing and assembly.

From there, the next stop will be space. The Webb telescope is slated to launch from French Guiana in October 2018. That will be a crucial moment for NASA. The telescope wasn't cheap to build  — it cost more than $8 billion and NASA nearly lost funding for it at least twice in the past decade alone — so NASA needs it to launch without a hitch and then work like a charm.

From there the Webb telescope will be doing incredible stuff. The telescope will be posted at Lagrange Point 2, a spot located behind Earth from the sun's perspective. This way, the telescope can use just one shield to protect it from both the sun's and Earth's thermal emissions. The telescope will be gathering up infrared views of the first galaxies in the universe and of planets circling far-off stars. (NASA opted to use infrared light because it allows the telescope to see through the interstellar dust more clearly.)

But before all that can happen, the Webb telescope is coming to Houston.


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