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It’s a bumpy ride to space! So how does NASA make sure its massive new telescope headed to space can withstand the shaking of a rocket ride?

February 15th, 2017

It’s a bumpy ride to space! So how does NASA make sure its massive new telescope headed to space can withstand the shaking of a rocket ride?

Shake it on the ground!

At NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, the new space telescope that will examine every phase of cosmic history is being shaken. James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch next year and observe the universe from 1.5 million km away.

 JWST model, Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

JWST model, Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

To shake the spacecraft, a new shaker table system was built by engineers at Team Corporation in Washington. This large and advanced table is the new “Vibrations Test Systems.” Some equipment, normally used for spacecraft testing, wouldn’t have worked for JWST due to its size and scale.

Why exactly was a new shaker system needed for the telescope? For multiple reasons that included the magnitude of the shaker force, the ability of the shaker table to cope with the telescope’s center of gravity that is very offset, and the need for a precision shaker control system.

The precision control system will be “smart,” meaning the shaker input levels will automatically adjust based on the responses of the test article. This includes the capability for an automatic ‘soft shutdown.’

The vibration testing will be finished soon, and the new Vibration Testing System can be used for testing large spacecraft in the future.

After the new system was completed, engineers performed practice runs for months before testing the actual flight telescope. For the practice runs, JWST was represented by a dummy mass.

JWST was moved onto the new Vibration Testing System this past November. Testing is ongoing, and a shirtsleeve cover that is 3 stories tall conceals JWST. This protects the telescope from dust and dirt, essentially a portable ‘cleanroom’.

JWST vibration tests, Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

JWST vibration tests, Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

What comes next before the telescope launches into deep space?

It will be sent to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas for more testing. Here, JWST will undergo end-to-end optical tests in a vacuum at very cold temperatures. After testing in Texas, JWST will go to California for final assembly and testing at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

The powerful telescope will peer back over 13.5 billion years and see the first stars and galaxies forming out of the early universe. It will see the earliest and most faint galaxies, which will help us understand how galaxies assembled over billions of years.

JWST will see where stars and planetary systems are born by seeing through and into clouds of dust. As if that weren’t enough, the telescope could also find the building blocks of life elsewhere in the universe by learning more about the atmospheres of extrasolar planets. JWST will study objects within our own Solar System as well.
Learn more about JWST! https://jwst.nasa.gov/index.html

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