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Readying Webb Telescope’s ‘Big Look’

By Kylee Toland

Next Wednesday, July 12, although not generally recognized for such right now, may go down as one of the most impactful days in the history of the human species on this planet. It’s the day when the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, by far the most powerful ever constructed and which promises to relay images from deepest space, and furthest back in time near to when the Big Bang happened, way beyond what anyone has seen before, will be unveiled for the world to behold. Who knows what we’ll see?

The Greater Falls Church based company Northrop Grumman, its global headquarters right here (on Fairview Dr. by where Route 50 and the Beltway intersect), has been at the center of this effort, partnering with NASA to release the images. While its global headquarters is here, Northrop has a total of 90,000 employees scattered among 550 locations across the U.S.

THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE. (Photo: Northrop Grumman.)

It is expected that the images that will be revealed from the James Webb telescope will be of the highest resolution, as all the systems are “go” on the telescope, which was launched last December to its designated position in space in an orbit around the sun about a million miles from earth. Charlie Atkinson, the chief engineer of the James Webb Telescope, told the News-Press last week that the release of the images is going to “feed” the “high STEM capability and content” in the Northern Virginia area “like crazy.”

Sophia Morris, a media relations specialist at Northrop Grumman in Washington, D.C., said Northrop Grumman employees in the surrounding Northern Virginia area have put their “hands, brains, minds and hearts” into the telescope, along with employees in D.C., Maryland, California and more places around the world. Atkinson confirmed that “there’s a very, very strong element of JWST workers and followers in this region.” Manufactured by Nothrop Grumman, the telescope is described to be the “largest, most complex and powerful space telescope ever built” and that it “uses its superb angular resolution and near-infrared instruments to discover and study planetary systems similar to our own, analyze the molecular composition of extrasolar planets’ atmospheres and directly image Jupiter-size planets orbiting nearby stars.”

According to a July 3 article by Greg Redfern for WTOP, these images will show “the deepest view into the universe to date,” “how galaxies interact and grow through collisions” and the “first spectrum of an exoplanet (a planet beyond our solar system).” Each image will simultaneously be made available on social media as well as on NASA’s website. For many, an important collateral finding could be conclusive signatures of the existence of intelligent life out there.

Atkinson said Northrop Grumman’s role with the telescope was building the observatory and getting it shipped down to the launch site at Europe’s Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana. The observatory — the space-based portion of the James Webb Space Telescope system — is broken into four pieces: the telescope itself, the “science instruments which were compiled and delivered by Goddard Space Flight Center,” the spacecraft and the sun shield. When the telescope releases the images on July 12th, Atkinson said he expects this will be the “opening of the doors” of the “demonstration/showcase/practice” of the scientific instruments used by the telescope, as well as showcasing the capability of the telescope.

“Obviously JWST’s chief scientific capability is beyond anything else that’s out there,” Atkinson said. “It’s got such a wide spectral band from just the ability of the observatory to receive a whole series of observations, store them, plan them and execute them; I think that’s a pretty cool capability that will be demonstrated as a part of this.” As for the obstacles that went into the telescope and the upcoming release of the images, Atkinson explained, “to say that there were no challenges would obviously not be completely honest, but I would categorize them as the kinds of challenges you would expect to see when you’re learning about how to operate an observatory in space.” Atkinson said all kinds of “testing” was done on the ground, but there were some things that “they just couldn’t do.”

An example would be the attitude control system, which is responsible for maintaining attitude and pointing, slew maneuvers, momentum unloading and many more tasks that Atkinson said “you can’t do on the ground because gravitational forces are just far too large to enable that kind of test.” However, the telescope has only had a few “anomalies” that has led it into going into “safe mode” — a mode where the vehicle stops what it is doing when things aren’t going “right”— with Atkinson saying this is “incredibly good” compared to other telescopes which have had many more “anomalies.”

As for Northrop Grumman’s professional relationship with NASA, Atkinson said it’s been a “really, really good relationship” and how it worked out between the two was the “level of transparency that we had together” while working on the telescope. NASA is also partnering with ESA (European Space Agency) and CSA (Canadian Space Agency) to release these images, which will be shown at 10:30 a.m. on July 12th from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The public can watch live coverage on NASA TV and the agency’s website, as well as on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Twitch and Dailymotion. “I have the utmost respect for the folks on the NASA team,” Atkinson said, “and their folks have the utmost respect for the capabilities that Northrop brought to the table.”