Terror times in store for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope engineers
- NASA's team for the James Webb Space Telescope project has a date with “2 weeks of terror".
The replacement for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space telescope is being readied for launch and it is almost ready to fly into space. How will it be like for the engineers? First, an example. Getting a rover to land on Mars is tough. After it is injected into the Martian atmosphere, it takes it "seven minutes of terror" to land safely. That is exactly how much time a rover takes to land after entering the atmosphere of the Red Planet. It is a fiery descent that, if not properly managed, will end in the crash of the rover into the red soil. Anything and everything can go wrong in those few minutes, unless it all works to perfection. For engineers, terror is the word that explains the experience and feelings best.
Now, what if we told you to stretch those "seven minutes of terror" for as long as two weeks? Well, the James Webb Space Telescope, which has been built to see the first ever stars to shine in the Universe, has “two weeks of terror", starting from the launch.
In the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), there are a minimum 344 "single point failures" that can be termed as critical moments in the timeline where, if the action doesn't occur as per the plan, then the six-tonne telescope cannot achieve the desired configuration. It will be lost in space with no hope of recovery.
The faint, far-away targets need a giant telescope, one that must be folded to fit within its launch rocket and then unfurled once in orbit to begin collecting pictures of space. This unfolding process has been called an origami exercise in reverse.
One of the complex parts of the process is the expansion of the five super-thin membranes that will shield Webb's vision from sunlight. "The sunshield is like a skydiver's parachute; it needs to be folded perfectly so that it unfolds and deploys perfectly without snags, without any tangles," said Northrop Grumman systems engineer Krystal Puga told BBC.
Puga further mentioned that to perfect the sequence, the team performed multiple deployments testing them over several years on various models. This gives them the confidence that it will be successfully deployed.
The two weeks long Webb's drama begins as soon as the telescope is launched from the European Ariane rocket and ends on Day 14 when the mirror wing finally comes out.
Mike Menzel, Nasa's lead mission systems engineer on the project, told BBC that, "James Webb cannot avoid the deployments. In fact, James Webb has to perform some of the most complex deployment sequences ever attempted, and these come with many challenges.”
Webb is scheduled to go into service about 180 days after launch, which includes time for the telescope's mirrors and instruments to be tuned. The engineers, on the other hand, will not rush over their work, especially if they encounter a block.
"I've been the Webb project manager for almost 11 years, and this team does not give up," said Bill Ochs, Webb project manager, showed his confidence in the project. "So, we don't talk about what do we do if we fail? We talk about how we correct problems that we see on orbit, and how we move forward from there."
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will launch on December 18, 2021 and astronomers will use it to discover the universe's oldest galaxies, look for Earth-like planets orbiting other stars, and achieve a variety of other scientific goals.
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