Tests under way on the sunshield for James Webb telescope

Jun 13, 2012
The five-layer James Webb Space Telescope sunshield consists of thin membranes made from a polymer-based film and supporting equipment such as spreader bars, booms, cabling, and containment shells. Designed to block solar light and keep the Observatory operating at cryogenic temperatures. Credit: NASA/Northrop Grumman

(Phys.org) -- NASA is testing an element of the sunshield that will protect the James Webb Space Telescope's mirrors and instruments during its mission to observe the most distant objects in the universe.

The sunshield will consist of five tennis court-sized layers to allow the Webb telescope to cool to its cryogenic operating temperature of minus 387.7 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Kelvin).

Testing began early this month at ManTech International Corp.'s Nexolve facility in Huntsville, Ala., using flight-like material for the sunshield, a full-scale test frame and hardware attachments. The test sunshield layer is made of Kapton, a very thin, high-performance plastic with a reflective metallic coating, similar to a Mylar balloon. Each sunshield layer is less than half the thickness of a sheet of paper. It is stitched together like a quilt from more than 52 individual pieces because manufacturers do not make Kapton sheets as big as a tennis court.

September 2009 artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope, with the 5 layer sunshield stretched out in space. Credit: NASA

The tests are expected to be completed in two weeks.

"The conclusion of testing on this full size layer will be the final step of the sunshield's development program and provides the confidence and experience to manufacture the five flight layers," said Keith Parrish, Webb Sunshield manager at NASA's Goddard Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

During testing, engineers use a high-precision to measure the layer every few inches at room temperature and pressure, creating a 3D map of the material surface, which is curved in multiple directions. The map will be compared to computer models to see if the material behaved as predicted, and whether critical clearances with adjacent hardware are achieved.

The test will be done on all five layers to give engineers a precise idea of how the entire sunshield will behave once in orbit. Last year, a one-third-scale model of the sunshield was tested in a chamber that simulated the it will experience in space. The test confirmed the sunshield will allow the telescope to cool to its operating temperature.

After the full-size sunshield layers complete testing and model analysis, they will be sent to Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach Calif., where engineers verify the process of how the layers will unfurl in space. There the layers will be folded, much like a parachute, so they can be safely stowed for launch.

The Webb is the world's next-generation space observatory and successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The most powerful space telescope ever built, Webb will provide images of the very first galaxies ever formed, and explore planets around distant stars. The Webb is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Explore further: NASA: Engineer vital to 1969 moon landing dies

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tests under way on the sunshield for Webb telescope

Sep 19, 2011

NASA is testing an element of the sunshield that will protect the James Webb Space Telescope's mirrors and instruments during its mission to observe the most distant objects in the universe.

Recommended for you

Testing immune cells on the International Space Station

3 hours ago

The human body is fine-tuned to Earth's gravity. A team headed by Professor Oliver Ullrich from the University of Zurich's Institute of Anatomy is now conducting an experiment on the International Space Station ...

Easter morning delivery for space station

8 hours ago

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Apr 19, 2014

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Sun emits a mid-level solar flare

Apr 18, 2014

The sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, peaking at 9:03 a.m. EDT on April 18, 2014, and NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory captured images of the event. Solar flares are powerful bursts of radiation. Harmful ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Easter morning delivery for space station

Space station astronauts got a special Easter treat: a cargo ship full of supplies. The shipment arrived Sunday morning via the SpaceX company's Dragon cargo capsule.

Making graphene in your kitchen

Graphene has been touted as a wonder material—the world's thinnest substance, but super-strong. Now scientists say it is so easy to make you could produce some in your kitchen.