James Webb Space Telescope gets shakedown to prepare for launch

By Emilee Speck - Digital journalist

NASA’s next space telescope will go through a gauntlet of tests before it is ready to launch in 2018.

The James Webb Space Telescope is finished being assembled at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and has started undergoing testing, NASA said this week.

During a recent test, engineers measured the impact on the telescope’s optical system, an 18-piece mirror that the telescope will use to make observations in space, through a simulation with “violent sound and vibration environments,” NASA said.

It’s one of the most rigorous tests that the space telescope will go through to prepare for its ride to space.

“We have spent the last four years preparing for this test,” said David Chaney, Webb’s primary mirror metrology lead at Goddard. “The challenges of this test include the large size of the primary mirror, the long radius of curvature, and the background noise. Our test is so sensitive we can measure the vibrations of the mirrors due to people talking in the room.”

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During the test, a high-speed interferometer, used to test mirrors, takes measurements at 5,000 frames per second.

“This is the only test of the entire mirror where we can use the same equipment during a before and after test,” said Ritva Keski-Kuha, the test lead and NASA’s Deputy telescope manager for James Webb. “This test will show if there are any changes or damages to the optical system.”

On Nov. 2, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden invited the media to get a glimpse of the telescope's 22-foot tall mirrors during an update on the testing progress.

“Today we are celebrating the fact that our telescope is finished and now we are about to prove that it works,” said John Mather, senior astrophysicist, Observational Cosmology Laboratory, during the event.

The telescope is designed to collect infrared light, which even the powerful Hubble Space Telescope cannot see.

It will be powerful enough to see every phase of our universe from the big bang to the formation of planets, according to NASA.

“We are opening up a whole new territory of astronomy,” said Mather.

Interested space fans can watch the testing progress at Goddard Space Flight Center on two cameras set up in the clean room.

People can also watch the telescope’s full assembly in a time-lapse videos. The most recent video from Oct. 21 (above) shows Goddard staff in their white “bunny suits” moving the telescope through the clean room.

The James Webb Space Telescope will live more than one million miles from Earth to observe deep space using infrared instruments. Webb is the replacement for the 26-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

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