James Webb Space Telescope Gets ‘Wings’

The James Webb Space Telescope has been given its wings and is moving closer to launch. Photo Credit: Atk
The James Webb Space Telescope has been given its wings and is moving closer to launch. Photo Credit: Atk

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one step closer to launch. The new telescope has had the backplane that will hold the space-based telescope’s primary mirror still as the spacecraft conducts research put into place. This week the support structure’s wings were added to the assembly. These wings will allow the mirror to fold up and fit inside the five-meter fairing of the rocket that will send JWST into space.

The telescope’s primary mirror is composed of 18 beryllium sections, which need to be movable to fit inside the launch vehicle’s fairing, which is 164 feet tall. Upon deployment, the mirror will unfold and allow the mirror to extend to 21 feet in diameter.

“This is another milestone that helps move Webb closer to its launch date in 2018,” said NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Program Director Geoff Yoder.

Comparison of Hubble and Webb primary mirrors. Credit: NASA
Comparison of Hubble and Webb primary mirrors.
Credit: NASA

NASA will now build the structure that the integrated science instrument module will be housed in. Technicians will then connect the wings and the backplane’s central section with the rest of the JWST.

The wing assemblies were designed, built, and tested by ATK, and each contains 900 separate components which are comprised of a light-weight graphite composite. Northrop Grumman partnered with ATK to complete the assembly.

“We will measure the accuracy down to nanometers; it will be an incredible engineering and manufacturing challenge,” said ATK’s JWST Program Manager Bob Hellekson. “With all the new technologies that have been developed during this program, the Webb telescope has helped advance a whole new generation of highly skilled ATK engineers, scientists, and craftsmen, while helping the team create a revolutionary telescope.”

When complete, the primary mirror backplane structure is approximately 24 feet by 21 feet, and it weighs in at more than 2,000 lbs. The backplane is a key component of the JWST, as it is the element of the telescope that will help maintain thermal and structural integrity.

Although the JWST has been dubbed as the replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, the new telescope conducts science in the infrared. Hubble conducts science in the near ultraviolet, near infrared, and optical ends of the spectrum. Therefore, NASA has advertised JWST as the successor to Hubble and stated that the new telescope will be used to follow in Hubble’s scientific footsteps.

JWST has had a tumultuous life so far.

The telescope has been in development since 1996 with 17 different nations involved in the project, including the European Space Agency. However, after about $3 billion had already been spent, Congress was ready to cancel the project in 2011. It was argued that this would be a waste of the funds already invested and it was decided that, considering that the project was about 75 percent complete, to cap funding at $8 billion and the project was saved.

It is hoped that the James Webb Space Telescope will allow researchers to peer even further back into time than Hubble has.  This could provide insights into how the universe was formed. Other elements of study include the formation of planets, stars, and galaxies. The telescope is named for James E. Webb, NASA’s second administrator who was in charge of NASA during the Apollo era.


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  1. It is shame that this an infrared telescope… Hubble’s beautiful optical images captured the world’s imagination and awe. Infrared might be better science but I doubt they have the same impact.

  2. NASA has the engineering genius to accomplish so much, but is hobbled by “no bucks, no Buck Rogers.” NASA receives 0.48 of a penny of the federal budget dollar, and I guess we’re fortunate it hasn’t been cut to less. So much astonishing, incredible space exploration awaits, just out of our grasp. ExoMars, TiME to Titan, a lander on Europa, . . . . The public cheered, briefly, when Curiosity landed. Now, on to “Do you think Lindsay Lohan will go to jail?” and “What are the Kardashians doing?”

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