Telescope technology gets thumbs-up

A team of independent experts has approved all ten new technologies developed for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, many of which never before been used on any satellite or space telescope. The approval, a year ahead of schedule, could reduce the risk of increased costs and schedule delays before the programme is approved for further development.

NASA commissioned the team of engineers, scientists and project managers to conduct the technical review. The group evaluated the telescope’s instruments including near and mid-infrared detectors, sunshield materials, lightweight cryogenic mirrors, microshutter arrays, and cryogenic detector readout application-specific integrated circuits. They determined the technologies were tested successfully in a space-like environment and are mature enough to include on the telescope’s upcoming mission.

The actual hardware and software that will fly on the telescope now can be engineered from working prototypes, allowing astronomers to study events after the Big Bang.

Two examples of the new technologies are the microshutter arrays and wavefront sensing and control.

Microshutters are tiny doorways, the width of a few hairs, that will allow scientists to remotely and systematically block out unwanted light and view the most distant stars and galaxies ever seen. The telescope will be the first project to employ this technology.

Through a process called wavefront sensing and control, a set of algorithms and software programmes, the optimum position of each of the telescope mirrors will be calculated, and the positions will be adjusted as necessary, causing the individual mirrors to function as one very sensitive telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to launch in 2013. The telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.