James Webb Telescope Receives First Instrument
Wednesday, June 27th, 2012
by AJ Plunkett
Our universe is one step closer to seeing the beginning of time. We hope.
The first instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope — a joint project of NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency — was recently delivered to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.
The follow-up to the Hubble Telescope, and currently the most powerful space telescope ever built, the JWST will be used to look for the first light emitted billions of years ago when the universe began.
Delivered on May 29, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is the first of four key components that will make up the telescope, which is slated for launch at the end of this decade.
More than 10 years of work have gone into MIRI, which was assembled and shipped from RAL Space, a division within the UK’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The project, which, according to RAL Space, has involved more than 200 engineers, will have a camera “so sensitive it could see a candle on one of Jupiter’s moons.”
MIRI is designed to capture light with wavelength’s between 5 to 28 microns — mid-infrared range. That is longer than the human eye can detect, according to NASA.
The farthest known objects so far have been seen as a glow. Because it is so sensitive, the hope is that MIRI will be able to “help identify what they are — supermassive black holes, newborn galaxies, or something we’ve never seen before,” said Mike Ressler, MIRI’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
RAL Space’s work included assembly, integration, testing, and ground calibration. MIRI was then placed in a specially constructed environmental container “designed to protect it from moisture and keep the temperature stable,” RAL Space said.
Upon arrival in Maryland, contamination control engineers from the European Space Agency and Goddard inspected the instrument for “the tiniest traces of dust or contamination which would have to be remedied because cleanliness is a priority for such a sensitive instrument,” said NASA. It passed inspection and was accepted.
MIRI will eventually be joined by other components, including one that is being designed and built by the Canadian Space Agency.
The CSA’s component will have a tuneable filter imager that will allow astronomers to peer through clouds of dust, as well as a fine guidance sensor that will help keep the telescope pinpointed within one millionth of a degree — it helps to be able to see well when you’re looking for the beginning of the universe.
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.