What was it like to work on the next great space observatory?

February 08, 2022

What was it like to work on the next great space observatory?

After years of developing new technologies, innovative designs and groundbreaking engineering, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) launched from French Guiana on December 25, 2021.

Seen as the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever sent into space. It will observe in a lower frequency range than its predecessor, from long-wavelength visible light through mid-infrared (0.6 to 28 um). This will allow Webb to capture images of the first galaxies formed, study planets around distant stars and make truly revolutionary discoveries that could change astrophysics forever.

At Ball Aerospace, an amazing team of engineers, technicians, support staff and many others worked together to design and build the advanced optical technology and the lightweight mirror system that is not only the visually iconic centerpiece of the observatory, but also what enables Webb to detect infrared light from the first stars and galaxies.

“This is a major engineering marvel, and it took hundreds, if not thousands, of us to get it working,” said Heather Doty, who worked on Webb as a structural engineer. “What made it so challenging from a structural perspective is figuring out how to get this huge thing into space. It meant a lot of detailed work to get it as lightweight as physically possible.”

Webb’s unprecedented capabilities are enabled by the largest segmented mirror ever to launch into space. About the size of a two-story building, the primary mirror measures approximately 6.5 meters (21.3 ft.), and is comprised of 18 hexagonal mirror segments, each approximately 1.3 meters (4.2 ft.) wide. The segments are aligned in space using Ball-built cryogenic actuators (tiny, mechanical motors) with both coarse- and fine-positioning to produce high-quality, sharp infrared images.

“It is not often that we are part of an industry team that gets to put ten brand new technologies and several more near-new technologies onto a single instrument and launch into space,” said Allison Barto, who served as program manager on Webb. “It's a dream come true to get to work on a mission as technically challenging and scientifically revolutionary as the James Webb Space Telescope. And then to get to work with all of the incredible people that we did across Ball, across the U.S. and internationally. You just grow so much as a person being able to work on a program like that.”

Early Webb studies were announced in 1996 under its original moniker, the Next Generation Space Telescope. Ball was an early mission participant with Goddard Space Flight Center and Northrop Grumman in 1997 to conduct technical requirement and cost studies. In 2002, Northrop Grumman was selected as the lead contractor of the industry team for developing the James Webb Space Telescope observatory. As part of the Webb industry team, Ball’s role was to design and build the advanced optical technology and lightweight mirror system. Ball shipped the completed mirror system to Goddard Space Flight Center in December 2013 and continued to support the Webb project throughout integration and testing. Ball is also providing support after launch during Webb’s commissioning, as Ball is responsible for the final mirror alignment in space.

“The mirrors are shiny and get all the attention, but we did amazing work across many other engineering disciplines to enable Webb,” Barto said.

In addition to the iconic gold mirrors, Ball’s contributions also included the cryogenic electronics system required to control the mirror positioning and curvature, optical verification of the integrated optical system, the Wavefront Sensing & Control algorithms that Ball engineers will use to align and phase the telescope after launch, and three extremely large cryogenic radiators enabled by proprietary Ball radiator coating technology.

“It was awesome to be a part of all the complexity and the technological advances achieved through Webb,” said Scott Knight, technical lead on the Webb. “Figuring out how to align a segmented mirror in space for the first time; how to develop super lightweight beryllium mirrors for the first time and prove they were capable of withstanding launch; developing the actuators, which had never been done to this nanometer precision at cryogenic temperatures; and then, just the complexity of putting together something of this scale and how to test it. Those were fascinating things to be part of.”

We spoke to some of the Ball Aerospace team members, some of whom have worked on Webb since 1997. The following video captures their insights and thoughts on this history-making mission.