Engineers Connect Two Halves of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope for First Time


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Development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) stretches all the way back to the mid-90s. No one at the time could have anticipated how long it would take to get the monstrously complex instrument built, but we’re in the home stretch now. Engineers at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Redondo Beach, California have assembled the two halves of the telescope for the first time. It’s not quite ready for launch yet, but it’s finally starting to look like the renders we’ve seen for years. 

The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA’s successor to Hubble, which is still working after more than a quarter-century. However, that telescope hasn’t had a service mission since the Space Shuttle was retired, and some of its components are starting to fail. The JWST won’t just replace Hubble; it will massively expand our ability to observe distant objects. It’s also a much more complex piece of technology. It uses a larger multi-segment beryllium mirror, and the high infrared sensitivity means it needs a deployable sunshield to protect the instruments. 

Engineers constructed the telescope in two halves out of necessity. There’s the Webb telescope itself with the mirrors and scientific instruments, and then the spacecraft frame with the sunshield and communication equipment. Northrop Grumman temporarily connected the two halves last year to make sure they could communicate with each other, but now they’re physically connected in their final conformation. The team carefully moved the telescope over top of the spacecraft with a crane, and then lowered it into place, allowing engineers could link it with the frame. Northrop is now working to connect the electronics to get the two halves fully integrated. 

JWST-Feature

What the JWST will look like in space.

The next step is for engineers to test the five-layer sunshield. After launch, the JWST will head near the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point almost a million miles away (1.5 million kilometers). If the sunshield doesn’t deploy properly, the telescope could be inoperative with no way to fix it. So, it’s absolutely vital the team makes sure it works before packing it up in the Ariane 5 rocket. 

The current timeline, which has been delayed repeatedly, calls for the James Webb Space Telescope to launch in March 2021. It’s designed to operate for at least five years, but the team hopes for 10 or more. We can only hope it’s as successful as Hubble, which is nearing its thirtieth anniversary.

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Astronomer: Earth’s Atmosphere Could Become the Lens of a Massive Telescope


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The conventional wisdom is that if you want to look at more distant objects in the universe, you need a bigger telescope. What if you didn’t have to build one, though? A new analysis claims it may be possible to use the Earth’s atmosphere as a giant lens to observe far-away stars and galaxies on the cheap. The process may even work in reverse to send signals to distant locales. 

Earth’s atmosphere has traditionally been seen as an impediment to astronomy. The thick envelope of gas that keeps us alive also obscures space. That’s why the most powerful telescopes are the ones we launch into orbit like Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. And then there are massive ground-based telescopes like the 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope under construction in Chile. 

These projects are expensive and deviously complex. The Giant Magellan Telescope will cost around $1 billion, and the Webb Telescope is closing in on $10 billion after years of delays. The “terrascope” proposed by Columbia University astronomer David Kipping could be vastly easier. Using the Earth’s atmosphere as a lens to focus light has been proposed in the past, but Kipping’s new calculations demonstrate how powerful such a setup could be. 

As light from distant objects passes through Earth’s atmosphere, some of it passes through the upper atmosphere and refracts into a cone-like shape. If you were to place a small satellite in orbit around the moon, it could use a small mirror to collect that light, essentially magnifying distant objects. According to Kipping, a 1-meter terrascope could potentially amplify light by 22,500 times. That’s far, far beyond the capabilities of any telescope we could manufacture with current technology. 

Kipping also points out you could equip a terrascope with a radio transmitter rather than a mirror. By bouncing signals off the Earth’s atmosphere, you could potentially improve communication with other planets in the solar system. Some of them have atmospheres, so you could bounce the signal onward creating an “Internet across the solar system.”

That all sounds great, but there are a few potential pitfalls. For one, you can’t point the terrascope anyplace you like. Your lens is the Earth itself, so you can only spy on things that are behind the planet. That’s just a tiny fraction of the sky. Kipping’s calculations also use simplified atmospheric models that don’t take into account conditions like high-altitude clouds. Light contamination from Earth could also make terrascope signals too noisy to be useful. Kipping agrees there’s a lot of work to be done, but it’s a fascinating idea.

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