Hubble’s Bigger Brother

ATK Plays Vital Role in Building NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

Dan Sorensen

June 6, 2013

Tucked out of the way in Magna, Utah, one local company is making giant leaps for mankind by helping discover possible life on other planets and the origins of galaxies. ATK Aerospace Group is a supplier of rocket propulsion systems and spacecraft components, and the company is helping construct one of NASA’s biggest projects: the James Webb Space Telescope.

While similar to the well-known Hubble Telescope, the Webb Telescope will be capable of capturing much more detailed images. The telescope is slated for launch in 2018, at which point it will travel 1 million miles from Earth, or four times the distance to the moon. Once it is in position, the telescope will unfold and begin taking images of galaxies and solar systems, looking back to the time of the Big Bang.

By traveling so far from Earth, the telescope will be able to take much more detailed images of deep space, as it will not have the atmospheric interference that hampers the Hubble Telescope. In addition, the mirror on the Webb Telescope is five times larger than that of the Hubble Telescope, meaning even more detailed images can be taken.

 “This will rewrite textbooks once it’s launched in 2018 and delivering the images that are expected,” says Bob Helleckson, James Webb Space Telescope program manager at ATK. “There are black holes, but we don’t know much about them. It is possible a telescope like this will give us so much more insight into these types of things.”

ATK’s role in the Webb Telescope project is building the 2,000-pound frame that will hold the telescope’s 18 sections of primary mirror in place. This includes two support wings that will fold up to fit into the spacecraft.

Using advanced graphite composite materials, similar to carbon fiber, ATK is building a frame that will hold tolerances of nanometers, even as temperatures in space drop to -400 degrees Fahrenheit. Withstanding these temperatures while maintaining such tolerances would be impossible with any type of known metal or alloy.

Several other companies from around the world are also building portions of the telescope.

“You really have a worldwide collection of state-of-the-art companies and scientists supporting this project,” says Helleckson. “It will look back to the Big Bang and take it one step beyond Hubble to the beginning of time. It will help us discover things we haven’t even thought about.”

One of the major improvements over the Hubble Telescope is its ability to capture infrared light. When viewing images from Hubble, it can be impossible to see what is happening inside nebulas, as the images are often filled with clouds of dust. While these create beautiful pictures, much of the science is hidden. Also, where stars are easy to see from light years away, the infrared images that will be delivered by the Webb Telescope will also help in viewing “cool images,” like planets and comets that do not radiate light. 

ATK isn’t the only Utah connection to the James Webb Space Telescope. The primary mirrors that gather light for the telescope are made with beryllium mined in Delta, Utah. Because of the extreme temperatures found in deep space, beryllium is used because it resists warping and deforming much better than glass.

ATK’s construction of the frame will be finished in 2014, after which it will be sent to NASA for assembly and final testing before being launched in 2018 out of Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana. 

Click here for an interactive 3D view of the James Webb Space Telescope.


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