In the hours following NASA’s July release of five stunning first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, reaction was swift from awe-struck viewers from all walks of life:
“Some days we take baby steps in exploration, some days we take leaps,” NASA astronaut Anne McClain wrote on Twitter, as recounted by Space.com. “This is a leap. A vivid, beautiful, fantastic leap.”
“It’s hard to overstate what impact #JWST is going to have on science, astronomy & our understanding of the universe,” British astronaut Tim Peake tweeted. “Incredible images.”
“I’ve never seen something so beautiful,” said a tweeter named Saif.
Patrick Reardon was also watching, but as the director of the Center for Applied Optics at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he was watching with a different eye than most of the rest of the world.
“My first thought was relief that it was working,” says Reardon, whose UAH team contributed to the research and development of the telescope.
And then he, too, just took it all in.
“I’m simply amazed by the images coming out,” Reardon says. “They are stunning. And it’s such an honor to be a part of the worldwide team that has made the James Webb Space Telescope a success.”
From the moment initial design of the telescope began, more than 300 companies from around the world had a hand in creating the largest optical telescope in space.
Among those are a number of Alabama entities. In addition to UAH, NASA lists among its partners and contributors to the telescope the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, NeXolve Corp. in Huntsville, General Dynamics in Cullman and Southern Research in Birmingham.
The companies worked in a number of areas during the research and development phases of the telescope.
Birmingham-based Southern Research’s engineering division, which was later sold to Kratos, was on the team that helped TRW (sold to Northrop Grumman in 2002) win the prime contract for the James Webb Space Telescope.
“The project was called DOTA – Deployable Optical Test Article,” says Jim Tucker, director, advanced technology development, for Kratos. “The point was to prove that a large structure that could hold a telescope mirror could be deployed in space at extremely cold temperatures with the requisite accuracy. Southern Research provided instrumentation and test setup support on the DOTA both at Space Park in Redondo Beach, California, and at the X-ray and Cryogenic Facility at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville.”
Through that work, Southern Research led a team that developed a “revolutionary” thermal expansion test, Tucker says. That test eventually was used to test every piece of the telescope’s mirror and support structure, about 7,000 samples, according to Tucker.
At UAH, Reardon and his team were involved with the cryogenic testing of the primary mirror segments for the telescope.
“Because the primary mirror was so large, and weight is critical in any space project, NASA needed sufficiently light mirrors that would perform at cryogenic temperatures, temperatures at which it was expected the James Webb Space Telescope would be operating,” Reardon says.
UAH’s testing, which included temperatures of -400 Fahrenheit, found that beryllium mirrors would be best for the telescope. And who manufactured substrates for these mirrors? A Cullman company called Axsys Technologies, which is now part of General Dynamics.
General Dynamics’ Precision Structures & Optics team, which is based in Cullman, had been working on the telescope since 1998, including the 21 primary mirror segments made of beryllium, two secondary mirrors, 21 delta frames and 10 various optical components, according to the company.
The Webb telescope’s mirrors were also the focus of work done at Marshall Space Flight Center.
Marshall’s involvement in the project dates back to 1989, before it was named the James Webb Space Telescope. Instead, Marshall was working on something referred to as the Next Generation Space Telescope.
Eventually, the Marshall team provided technical oversight of the Webb mirrors and Marshall’s X-ray and Cryogenic Facility was running cryo tests of the latch system, flight mirrors, actuator systems and flight hardware.
“Marshall is very proud of its role in making the Webb Space Telescope a reality,” says Dr. H. Philip Stahl, Marshall’s senior optical physicist. “The center has a 60-plus-year history of helping to design, build, test, fly and operate all of NASA’s great observatories — Compton, Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer — as well as other missions.… We look forward to having a significant role on future missions to find and characterize Earth-like planets around other suns.”
While others were helping develop the James Webb Space Telescope’s all-important mirrors, NeXolve, a Huntsville company, was looking at protecting those mirrors from the heat of the sun. What they came up with was the Sunshield Membrane Assembly, described by the company as “a tennis court-size, five-layer thin polymer film structure that prevents the sun’s heat from reaching Webb’s telescope mirrors.”
“The sunshade is a critical part of the telescope,” says Jim Moore, president and CEO of NeXolve. “The sunshield blocks the heat from the sun, allowing the telescope to reach near absolute zero temperature, which enables it to see the faintest most distant objects in the universe.”
SIT BACK AND ENJOY
The payoff came July 12, when folks at these Alabama companies, like millions of others in the world, watched as the first five images from the James Webb Space Telescope showed us parts of space we’d never seen before.
“Our team was all together in our conference room watching the images as they were revealed to the world,” says NeXolve’s Moore. “The images are absolutely beautiful and can be appreciated on that fact alone. I can only guess at the new findings and improved understanding of the universe that will be derived from these images.”
Tucker, who worked on the James Webb Space Telescope for more than two decades, said he and others he talked to “had mixed emotions” when President Joe Biden revealed the first images from the telescope.
“It was a lot like sending your kid off to college,” he says. “It’s the proudest day of your life, but your child is going away. The telescope is built, tested and calibrated. It’s time for the engineers and physicists who constructed it to be done and hand it over to the scientists to use it for the reason it was made. It’s up to the astronomers to discover new things about our universe and those who brought the James Webb Space Telescope to life will move on to other projects. Now, it’s time to sit back and enjoy the beautiful pictures just like everyone else, but maybe with a little more pride.”
It’s still hard to let go, Moore says.
“Everything was designed to provide a life of at least five years, and there is a potential to operate for up to 10 years,” he says. “Of course, (the telescope) is very complex and operating in a very hostile environment. I don’t think I will relax until we have at least a few years of observations in the archive.”
Alec Harvey is executive editor of Business Alabama.
This article appears in the October 2022 issue of Business Alabama.