James Webb Space Telescope: Countdown to Extraterrestrial Hookup

Things are unfolding just fine for the James Webb Space Telescope — Alabama’s newest contribution to space exploration — which passed a major test in late July when its sun shield successfully unfolded to the size of a tennis court at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, Calif.

A key component of the Webb telescope, the shield will have to replicate that unfolding trick to get things operational after the 2018 liftoff. The shield was built in Huntsville by ManTech International and made of Kapton, a high-performance plastic. Axsys Technologies, of Cullman, shaped the telescope’s mirrors and the Marshall Space Flight Center tested all that work at its facilities in Huntsville.

“It’s amazing that three different entities have done work for the James Webb Space Telescope in a 45-mile radius in Alabama, ” says Janet Anderson, a NASA spokeswoman based in Huntsville.

Shielding against extreme heat and cold is vital given that the Webb will operate at the so-called Earth-Sun L2 point, 930, 000 miles from Earth or about four times the distance from Earth to the moon. Compare that to the Hubble, which already has changed astronomy’s textbooks with a view from just 353 miles up.

What’s the payoff? A panel of scientists, who convened recently at NASA headquarters in Washington, told the agency’s top executive that the Webb might well discover evidence of alien life in the next 20 years. It would do so not by spotting condos and pubs but rather by identifying biosignature gases — gases in the atmosphere produced by life.

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NASA administrator Charles Bolden, for his part, says he believes “it’s highly improbable in the limitless vastness of the universe that we humans stand alone.”

Text by Dave Helms

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