Powerful space telescope, ready to launch Christmas, has a regional twist | Local news


Lots of companies say their products are out of this world. But for two manufacturers in the Monadnock region, this should literally be the case soon.

The materials made by these companies – Corning Inc. in Keene and Optical Solutions Inc. in Charlestown – are part of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to launch into space on Saturday.

The telescope, named after a former NASA administrator and known as JWST, is said to be the most powerful in space – 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Telescope. It is meant to deeply scan the universe, exploring its creation and the formation of stars and galaxies, while looking for other planets that may harbor life.

A joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, its launch has been repeatedly postponed due to technical delays and cost overruns, including again this week, when it was summer moved to 7:20 am at Christmas due to bad weather.

Once in orbit, a million kilometers from Earth, JWST will rely on instruments from local manufacturers to capture the best images of the cosmos ever taken.

Many of these images will pass through lenses manufactured by Optical Solutions as part of the telescope’s near infrared (NIRCam) camera. This device will detect light from early stars, forming galaxies, and even faint objects, like planets, in other solar systems.

“Image having the ability to see a firefly next to a large, bright light on a football stadium,” Optical Solutions president Brad Piccirillo said of NIRCam’s ability to find planets nearby. ‘a brighter star.

Unlike Hubble, which primarily captures visible light images, JWST can detect wavelengths in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to pick up objects the existing telescope cannot find.

Piccirillo, a Walpole resident who founded Optical Solutions in 1996, said the company got a contract from aerospace company Lockheed Martin seven years later for the NIRCam project. The local company had previously made an infrared imager for SOFIA – an airborne observatory by NASA, housed in a jumbo jet – that uses a similar optical system, he said.

Optical Solutions, which had around 20 people working on NIRCam lenses, completed its part of the project in 2010, he said. Calling optics the “heart of the system,” Piccirillo said on Tuesday he was proud to have contributed to the telescope.

“In my lifetime, this is the best camera ever made,” he said. “It’s phenomenal.”

Another JWST imaging system includes three telescopes made at Corning’s manufacturing facility on Island Street in Keene, according to a company spokesperson.

One of those products will help stabilize the larger system and ensure it is precisely targeted when capturing images, said Jeff Santman, a senior engineer who led the JWST project at Corning. Another instrument, called a slitless spectrograph, includes the company’s other two telescopes and will help astronomers determine the chemical makeup of a distant object, offering clues as to its identity and age.

Similar to Optical Solutions, however, he said JWST was a particularly difficult engineering problem because it has to operate in such cold temperatures.

Corning, which is based in upstate New York and was hired by a company working for the Canadian Space Agency, tested its telescopes in cryogenic chambers to make sure they could withstand these conditions. , according to Santman. The company also built them entirely from aluminum, he said, so that they react evenly to the elements of space.

“If you start changing different materials in a telescope, those different materials will react to stress differently,” he said. “… What we’re trying to do is eliminate all of these variables. “

After taking those precautions, Santman said on Wednesday that he was confident Corning’s products would perform as intended. Still, he admitted a few nerves that another part of the system could fail, noting that JWST will be too far from Earth for any repairs – unlike Hubble, which orbits just 340 miles from the surface and which astronauts have visited little. long after its launch in 1990 to correct an imaging problem.

“There is success and there is failure,” Santman said. “You can’t go out and fix it. We do not understand the Hubble error.

With the $ 10 billion telescope set to launch from French Guiana in South America after years of delay, he and Piccirillo both said they feared an incident that could destroy their work even before it did. ‘reaches space.

“I have this scenario in my head where I’m walking along a beach and NIRCam is sitting there on the beach,” Piccirillo said.

But a successful mission would shape our knowledge of the universe for decades, offering new details about its origins and content.

Piccirillo said he had largely forgotten about the telescope until recently, but planned to watch Saturday’s launch – which NASA will broadcast online at www.nasa.gov/nasalive – with his family. If all goes well, he said, JWST, or “the Webb,” will one day become a household name, like Hubble.

“I know that every picture that everyone will see for the rest of their life has gone through our goals,” he said. “It is a wonderful, warm feeling. I will carry it with me until the day I die.

About 50 people at Corning have been involved in the JWST project, according to Santman, who said the company submitted the documents in 2010 after six years of work. He has remained abreast of developments since then, claiming that the telescope, as a collaborative effort, is greater than the individual reputation of any person or company.

Like every time Corning has gear on a launch pad, Santman said he’s nervous. But on Saturday he will watch helplessly with everyone.

“I’ll be glued to the TV,” he said. “… And I won’t stop watching until they stop broadcasting.”


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