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On a Mission: Inside the Minds of KBR’s James Webb Space Telescope Scientists and Engineers

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On a Mission: Inside the Minds of KBR’s James Webb Space Telescope Scientists and Engineers


Publish Date:
10 Mar 2022

KBR employees have been part of the development, integration, and testing of the James Webb Space Telescope almost since its inception. Considered the largest and most powerful telescope to ever leave Earth, the historic launch went off without a hitch early Christmas morning and quickly began its million-mile journey into deep space from its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

The telescope is three stories tall with a gold-plated mirror that stretches 21 feet wide. It is designed to capture images and spectra at infrared wavelengths, which will allow humans to see galaxies as they first formed many years ago. To get the large instrument into space, it needed to be delicately folded and secured into the payload section atop an Ariane 5 rocket. Once on orbit, the telescope must first unfold again, then adjust its temperature. One side stays at approximately room temperature and the other cools down to a frigid -388 degrees Fahrenheit, making for a challenging mission.

By mid-January 2022, the Webb telescope had been fully deployed. The deployments were a carefully choreographed process that involved a total of 178 release devices known as Non-Explosive Actuators (NEAs), as well as a multitude of motors, pulleys, cables, and other mechanisms that had to perform flawlessly. This set of critical activities carried 275 of the mission’s 344 single point of failures, meaning not one step could go wrong or risk degrading the mission. Never in history had a spacecraft had such a large number of releases or deployments of such complexity. Some, like the sunshield deployment, had never been attempted in space before.

The entire series of commissioning – the deployment and gathering of data while the Webb telescope travels to its intended destination – is expected to last six months. During that time, the dedicated telescope team will heavily monitor its every move. As we wait on Earth to receive our first “message” or set of data from the telescope, we are left to reflect on how something as complicated as the Webb telescope was made possible in the first place.

Working on behalf of various Mechanical Integration Services and Technologies contracts with NASA over the past 15 years – and alongside many, many partnering organizations – we asked key KBR Webb telescope scientists and engineers to give us some insight.

KBR’s Begoña Vila, PhD

Webb Telescope Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) Systems Engineer, Science Instrument Operations Deputy

James Webb Space Telescope "This telescope was designed to look back in time at the first galaxies and stars that formed in the universe after the Big Bang and understand how they evolved to become the galaxy where we live today." Begoña Vila, PhD JWST FGS Systems Engineer, Science Instrument Operations Deputy KBR

 

As systems lead for the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) aboard the Webb telescope, Dr. Vila coordinated needed ground testing, verification, operations, and simulations to ensure success on orbit with the instrument team members at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), Canada (Honeywell and Canadian Space Agency) and Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI).

On Dr. Vila’s main contributions:

Dr. Vila: The Fine Guidance Sensor is critical for the mission as it provides pointing and stability for science operations in coordination with the Attitude Control System (ACS). I led multiple coordinated activities, simulations, and tests with the ACS team that interacts in a closed loop with FGS both at the Observatory Test Bed at STScI and at the Engineering Model Test Bed (EMTB) at NGSS.

On Dr. Vila’s broader role with all Webb telescope instruments:

Dr. Vila: I was the test director for the final cryogenic testing at GSFC, and I provided inputs and supported the cryogenic testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) and then continued to support ambient tests at NGSS and at the launch site. As deputy for science instruments operations during commissioning, I helped plan and coordinate multiple rehearsals at STScI and worked with the mission operations team on the activities needed after launch to commission the science instruments and get them ready for operations. We are now in the process of executing those commissioning timeline activities. As I did during ground testing, I am now supporting commissioning on the SI lead console and as lead for the FGS/NIRISS console.

On the development of the Webb telescope and its scientific purpose:

Dr. Vila: This telescope was designed to look back in time at the first galaxies and stars that formed in the universe after the Big Bang and understand how they evolved to become the galaxy where we live today. The light of these first objects has been travelling for 13.5 billion years in a universe that is expanding, so its wavelength has stretched, i.e., it has moved to the infrared. That is where the Webb telescope will be able to capture the images and spectra of those early objects. It can also look through gas and dust where stars and planets form and is able to determine if those planets around other stars (exoplanets) have an atmosphere and if that atmosphere shows the presence of elements that we associate with life, giving us another clue in our desire to find out if we are alone in the universe. It is also able to look at objects within our own solar system.

To achieve these particularly important scientific objectives, the Webb telescope needs to be cooled to about 40 Kelvins, or -388 degrees Fahrenheit. It does this using a sunshield as big as a tennis court that was folded to fit inside the rocket and deployed once on orbit. To achieve the sensitivity needed to detect the faint signals of these objects, it has a large 6.5-meter diameter mirror made of 18 smaller mirrors also folded to fit inside the rocket to deploy and align once on orbit using the actuators in the back of each mirror. Each of its science instruments has state-of-the-art detectors and technologies. The demonstration of these technologies and deployment capabilities is an important part of the Webb telescope.

On how the telescope’s primary instruments differ from the Hubble telescope:

Dr. Vila: The instruments on Hubble are designed to operate mainly at visible wavelengths. The instruments in the Webb telescope are designed to capture images and spectra at infrared wavelengths between 0.5 to 5.5 microns. One of the JW the Webb telescope instruments can observe in the infrared up to 28 microns by being even colder at 6 Kelvin than the others that operate at 40 Kelvin. Another significant difference with Hubble is the size of its primary mirror; The Webb telescope has a larger mirror (6.5-meter diameter versus 1 meter for Hubble), which allows it to collect more light and thus see fainter signals.

On the testing process utilized to ensure the sensitive equipment did not get harmed in the harsh environment of space and during transportation events, such as the launch:

Dr. Vila: The Webb telescope had a very thorough ground test campaign at multiple levels of assembly that included vibration and acoustics testing to confirm it would survive the launch loads with margin; Electromagnetic Interference/Electromagnetic Compatibility (EMI/EMC) testing to confirm no interference between multiple subsystems for commanding and operations; multiple cryogenic tests duplicating the conditions of vacuum and cold environment that the observatory will see on orbit to confirm its alignment (that was done at ambient temperatures modeling how it would change at cold temperatures), optical performance and the commanding for flight operations; and multiple electrical ambient tests to confirm everything remained nominal after transportation or other ground operations. It also went through multiple deployments to demonstrate those on-orbit activities.

There were some operations that could not be fully tested at observatory level due to the size and complexity of this observatory (for example, there is not a cryogenic chamber large enough to fit a fully deployed the Webb telescope), therefore, high fidelity simulators were developed to test and confirm all the activities needed for on-orbit operations and multiple contingency plans.

KBR’s Milagros Silverio

Webb Telescope Restrain and Release Mechanisms Engineer

James Webb Space Telescope - "Working as an engineer at KBR provided the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the most important NASA mission since Apollo. The development of the James Webb Space Telescope telescope and its scientific purpose will revolutionize science. All science textbooks will have to be rewritten." Milagros Silverio JWST Restrain and Release Mechanisms Engineer

 

Silverio spent eight years of dedicated support managing the development of all the NEAs. This entailed overseeing the rigorous developmental, qualification, integration and test, as well as flight acceptance programs that were implemented to deliver reliable flight units. These programs included the fabrication and testing of thousands of NEAs. NASA had never used this many release devices on previous missions and the NEA vendor had never fabricated such a large number of NEAs, so this was a very challenging part for the Webb telescope project that had constant devoted attention from the project office’s leadership and NASA. Silverio’s hard work, dedication, and her ability to pay attention to the smallest of details made a heavy contribution to the successful completion and delivery of all the flight NEAs. She worked with her team tirelessly to ensure that all 178 flight NEAs worked perfectly to restrain all the deployables, which included the solar array, antenna, sunshield, and mirrors during launch and to successfully release them in space.

On Silverio’s main contributions:

Silverio: Besides leading the overall development for all the NEAs, my main contribution was spearheading the effort to complete the design and development of the 3/4-inch NEAs, which held the telescope during launch. This was the most difficult of the eight types of NEAs used on the Webb telescope. NASA has never developed a device capable of holding the extreme weight of the Webb telescope – 14,000 pounds – so completing this device was incredibly challenging and took many years to complete. I led design analysis efforts, which helped to identify design flaws and were used to improve the reliability of not only the 3/4-inch NEA, but also the other type of NEAs. I also led key supplemental testing of the devices at GSFC to further improve the performance and reliability of all the NEAs.

On the development of the Webb Telescope and its scientific purpose:

Silverio: The development of the Webb telescope and its scientific purpose will revolutionize science. All science textbooks will have to be rewritten.

On how the telescope’s primary instruments differ from the Hubble telescope:

Silverio: The Webb telescope will look at our beautiful universe in the infrared. Hubble did it in the ultraviolet, visible and some near infrared wavelengths with minor infrared capability using advanced and near infrared camera instruments. The Webb telescope will explore the universe in the mid infrared using mid-IR instruments.

On the testing process utilized to ensure the sensitive equipment did not get harmed in the harsh environment of space and during transportation events, such as the launch:

Silverio: The Webb telescope went through a lengthy and rigorous test campaign that lasted many years to ensure it can survive launch and the space environment. The telescope was shaken up extremely hard during vibration testing at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The telescope will operate at incredibly low temperatures in space, so it was frozen to death during thermal vacuum testing where it saw temperatures of - 393 degrees Fahrenheit. In fact, NASA Johnson Space Center's Thermal Vacuum Chamber used for the Apollo Moon Program was refurbished and upgraded at Johnson Space Center in Houston to test the Webb telescope.

On how Silverio’s work at KBR helps to shape the future and the historic nature of this project:

Silverio: Working as an engineer at KBR provided the opportunity to make a significant contribution to the most important NASA mission since Apollo. My hope is that this amazing mission will help us to uncover big secrets about our universe and that it will inspire a new generation of engineers and scientists who will add to the great technological achievements of this great nation.

KBR’s Alejandro Rivera, PE

Webb Telescope Deployables & Mechanisms Engineer

James Webb Space Telescope "Never in history has a spacecraft had as many deployments and releases as JWST and their failure would have been mission ending in most cases. It is a privilege to have been able to contribute to one of NASA’s most important missions ever in this capacity. At the release mechanisms and deployables teams, we feel we have made space history." Alejandro Rivera JWST Deployables & Mechanisms Engineer

 

Rivera joined the Webb telescope in July 2013 to support the analysis and re-design of the 3/4-inch Hold Down Release Mechanism (HDRM), a form of NEA that supports the Optical Telescope Element plus the Science Instrument (OTIS) module of the Webb telescope during launch. His other key contributions included analyses of the unfolding of the five OTIS deployments and the spacecraft separation from the Ariane 5 rocket’s upper stage, to ensure the success of the mission. He also supported the commissioning of the deployables on console at the Mission Operations Center starting on launch day and throughout the critical “two weeks of terror.”

On Rivera’s main contributions to the hold-down release mechanisms (HDRMs):

Rivera: I was asked to join the Webb telescope project back in 2013 to help with the 3/4-inch HDRM. Because the four HDRMs have to support the tremendous OTIS inertial loads during launch, they are subject to very high tensions and stresses. At the time, there was no mechanism in the industry that could perform this task and the initial design kept failing. Hence, back then this was considered one of the Webb telescope’s biggest challenges. I performed analysis of the 3/4-inch HDRM, which was used to identify the device’s design flaws, as well as the foundation for the design changes that helped solve its problems. I also analyzed some of the components of the other, smaller sized, 1/8-inch HDRMs. The Webb telescope has 133 of them, and 127 are used on the sunshield. ALL had to work for a successful deployment and tensioning of the sunshield and its five layers, which help keep sunlight from interfering with the sensitive telescope instruments, with an estimated maximum temperature gradient between the hot and cold sides of 347 Kelvin. Never in history had a spacecraft used as many of these devices.

On Rivera’s analysis and testing of the Webb telescope’s deployables:

Rivera: I performed dynamic deployment analysis and contingencies analysis of the all the OTIS deployables, including the Deployable Tower Assembly (DTA), Secondary Mirror Support Structure (SMSS), and the two Primary Mirror Backplane Assembly (PMBA) wings (sides of the primary mirror), along with accompanying on-site deployment testing of these deployables for almost two years. These deployments, along with the many other ones, were extremely critical and had they not gone as planned, the mission would have been severely affected, and in most cases ended. The Webb telescope had the largest number of deployments and with the biggest complexity of any spacecraft in history, so to have been able to successfully complete all of them is really remarkable and a source of great satisfaction. To put things in perspective, the Webb telescope has 344 single points of failure, or points that should they fail, they would be mission-ending. Out of these, 275 (80%) belong to the release mechanisms and deployables teams. In comparison, the Galileo probe had about 30 and a Mars landing has an estimated 100. The extensive and very thorough testing we subjected each of the deployables to help identify and eradicate potential problems, which in the long run contributed to achieving the very successful deployment commissioning we had. We had also prepared for months for possible on-orbit deployment contingencies, and had any happen, we were on console at the Mission Operations Center (MOC) at the STScI ready and prepared with our computer models to perform simulations and help fix any anomaly.

On the separation of the Webb telescope from the Ariane 5 rocket’s upper stage:

Rivera: I performed the dynamic analysis of the separation, which was sent to NASA headquarters for their evaluation. It was used as verification that the Webb telescope would separate optimally from the rocket’s upper stage with the right linear and angular velocities about all axis, right relative separation velocity, and linear and angular momentum. The separation from the spacecraft was one of the most critical moments of the mission. The telescope’s ascent is designed to separate from Ariane 5’s upper stage with a velocity and direction that is close to but not at 100 percent accuracy. Given this probability, two mid-course corrections were conditionally planned to get the spacecraft in its final orbit. These corrections use valuable propellant, so the more accurate the separation the less propellant that is used. The separation was so accurate that during the two mid-course corrections we ended up using a lot less propellant than expected. Hence, the length of the mission will be extended by several years and the Webb telescope will have enough propellant to allow support of science operations in L-2 orbit for significantly more than a 10-year science lifetime (the minimum baseline for the mission was five years).

On the commissioning of the deployables at the Mission Operations Center and the “two weeks of terror”:

Rivera: The 15 days on console at the MOC were probably the most exciting and perhaps stressful of my career. We were on 12-hour shifts and had at least one major deployment each day. Knowing that a bad HDRM release or failed deployment was a mission-ending event represents an incredible amount of responsibility and pressure difficult to describe. Before each of the initial releases, my heartrate would literally go up. Then, a few seconds after sending the firing signal the telemetry came back and we had confirmation of the successful releases, one could breathe again. When the deployment began shortly after the releases, the stress would increase again and last throughout the entire deployment. Once the deployment was completed, one could breathe a sigh of relief. This process happened every day, sometimes several times a day, for 14 days. On New Year’s Eve, we started at 7.30 a.m. and by the time I returned to my hotel, it was 11.30 p.m. The day we completed the final deployment was incredibly special and the entire team had a mini celebration at the MOC. I will never forget these two weeks.

On how the telescope’s primary instruments differ from the Hubble telescope:

Rivera: The Webb telescope’s instruments operate in infrared wavelengths. The universe is expanding, and therefore the farther we look, the faster objects are moving away from us, redshifting the light. Redshift means that light that is emitted as ultraviolet or visible light is shifted more and more to redder wavelengths, into the near- and mid-infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum for very high redshifts. Therefore, to study the earliest star and galaxy formation in the universe, we have to observe infrared light and use a telescope and instruments optimized for this light.

On how Rivera’s work at KBR helps to shape the future and the historic nature of this project:

Rivera: The Webb telescope deployments and releases are arguably the most critical aspect of this mission. This is why the two weeks of deployments were referred to in the media as the “two weeks of terror.”  Never in history has a spacecraft had as many deployments and releases as the Webb telescope and their failure would have been mission ending in most cases. It is a privilege to have been able to contribute to one of NASA’s most important missions ever in this capacity. As members of the release mechanisms and deployables teams, we feel we have made space history.

KBR’s Paul Bagdanove

Webb Telescope Mechanical Systems Engineer - Lead Stress Analyst

James Webb Space Telescope "Engineering precision takes bold ideas and creates innovation to transform our world. We engineered the telescope in the present to see the past, to find the dimmest light to shine on the future." Paul Bagdanove JWST Mechanical Systems Engineer, Lead Stress Analyst

 

Bagdanove worked as the Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) and thermal distortion and stress analyst, where he provided support and analysis of subcomponent joint thermal distortion cryogenic tests, subcomponent instrument bay thermal distortion cryogenic tests and ISIM cryogenic tests for thermal distortion and stability. In addition, he provided test support and analysis for the mechanical ground support equipment, which calibrated the science instruments by use of simulated light coming from the Webb telescope Observatory’s primary mirrors. As a key engineer, Bagdanove supported both OTIS (Optical Telescope Element + ISIM) and the Webb telescope mechanical systems, including the hardware builds, thermal distortion/stress analyses, frequency turning, integrations, vibe testing, and transportation efforts to JSC, testing facilities and to the launch site.

On Bagdanove’s main contributions:

Bagdanove: There is great pride in providing support to a monumental flagship NASA program, which will benefit the entire scientific community worldwide. This space-based telescope will uncover the first stars ever developed in the universe and find planets in more detail than any other telescope ever built. Webb will determine what is the first light by a specific energy signal in the photons gathered in the infrared spectrum. This light has been traveling in our expanding universe since the formation of the first suns developed and will come from every direction no matter where the Webb is pointed. The early universe was abundant with hydrogen and helium and as such, this is what the first stars were mainly composed. As the first light traveled through this hydrogen rich environment, a signal was created.

On the development of the Webb Telescope and its scientific purpose:

Bagdanove: We engineered the telescope in the present to see the past, to find the dimmest light to shine on the future.

On how Bagdanove’s work at KBR helps to shape the future and the historic nature of this project:

Bagdanove: Engineering precision takes bold ideas and creates innovation to transform our world.

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