Spaceflight Insider

James Webb Space Telescope unveiled at NASA’s Johnson Space Center

James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Photo Credit: Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

The James Webb Space Telescope’s secondary mirror. Photo Credit: Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

JOHNSON SPACE CENTER, Texas — NASA officials highlighted the work being done on the agency’s next generation space-based observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, on Wednesday, May 31. The event was held to mark the beginning of a series of tests that precede the telescope’s planned launch to space.

While at Johnson Space Center (JSC), the spacecraft will be tested as a complete optical system in the simulated space environment of Chamber A. While there, it will be exposed to the vacuum as well as the frigid temperatures the telescope will encounter after it is launched (if everything goes as planned, the JWST will launch from the spaceport located in Kourou, French Guiana, in late 2018 atop an Ariane 5 rocket).

The event was attended by several NASA officials including JSC’s Center Director, Ellen Ochoa; Eric Smith, the JWST program director; Mark Voyton, JWST Optical Telescope Element and Integrated Science (OTIS) manager from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; and Jonathan Homan, the project manager for James Webb Space Telescope Test Team at Johnson.

NASA Johnson Space Center Director, Ellen Ochoa, speaks to members of the press during Wednesday's event. Photo Credit: Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

NASA Johnson Space Center Director, Ellen Ochoa, speaks to members of the press during Wednesday’s event. Photo Credit: Nathan Moeller / SpaceFlight Insider

Despite being a National Historic Landmark, Chamber A is still active, with it being used to put spacecraft through their paces before liftoff.

The testing device was built in 1965 to shake down the Apollo Command and Service Modules prior to their trips to the Moon, and it is the largest thermal-vacuum chamber of its kind in the world.

Once it has completed these tests, the JWST will be sent to Redondo Beach in California where Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems will integrate the spacecraft with the complete Webb observatory. The JWST will then undergo final testing before it is shipped to Kourou in preparation for flight.

Since NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for more than 25 years, the space agency has been working to field the James Webb Space Telescope for some time now, with concepts for Hubble’s successor stretching back to the mid-1990s.

The JWST is massive. The telescope’s primary mirror measures in at an imposing 21-feet (6.5-meters) and requires Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket to place it at the Lagrange 2 site where it will orbit. By comparison, the entire Hubble Space Telescope is some 43.5 feet (13.2 meters) in length.

Size, however, isn’t the only thing that is large about the JWST: the space-based telescope has had cost overruns to match. Initial cost estimates for the U.S. portion of the telescope had placed it at $1.6 billion. However, by around 2015, the telescope had cost $8.8 billion.

Management of the telescope was so poor that, on July 6, 2011, the United States House of Representatives attempted to withdraw from the international project. In November of that year, Congress, rather than ending the agency’s role on the project, capped spending on the JWST at $8 billion.

As it is currently envisioned, the James Webb Space Telescope is meant to serve astronomers across the globe by studying exotic phenomena such as black holes as well as potentially contributing to humanity’s understanding of dark matter and dark energy. It will also be used to seek out exoplanets, to study the formation of distant solar systems, to gain a better understanding of the history of our universe, as well as the first light to appear after the Big Bang.

As noted, NASA is not alone in contributing to the JWST: the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency are also involved on the project.

Video courtesy of Astro95 Media



Moeller graduated from Texas Tech University's College of Architecture in 2008 and completed the graduate program in 2011. He covered the refueling stop of space shuttle Discovery at Rick Husband International Airport in 2009 after the orbiter had completed its mission to the International Space Station. Moeller also covered the build up to launch shuttle Atlantis on mission STS-132 in 2010 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Moeller joined Max Q Entertainment in 2009, leading the development of the website as well as document production streamlining, graphics work and aiding video production for missions STS-125 onward.

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