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Flying high in Baltimore


By Susan Curtis in Baltimore, US

After two days of getting to grips with biophysics – see here and here for my experiences –  I was ready for a change of scene. And a visit to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), co-located with the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore but operated on behalf of NASA, was just what I needed.

The STScI is home to many of the scientists and engineers who made the Hubble Space Telescope possible, and who have been working for many years to design the optics and instrumentation for its successor – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched in 2018. The institute also runs the science operations for Hubble and soon will for the JWST, providing software tools for astronomers to make their observations and processing the raw data acquired by the onboard instruments to make it ready for scientific analysis.

For the JWST, the institute will also run the flight operations both during launch and once the telescope has reached its final destination. The launch phase in particular will be a tense time, as – unlike Hubble – the telescope has not been designed to be serviced in space. “It’s a one-shot deal,” says Jason Kalirai, project scientist for the JWST. “There is no opportunity to update or correct, which means that a large part of the budget is being spent on integration and testing.”

This video shows the complex deployments and manoeuvres needed in the first 14 days after launch on a Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. Last to fold out will be the 6 m segmented mirror, but even at that point the scientists at the STScI won’t know for sure that the mission has been a success. “The ‘first light’ from the telescope will be 18 blurry images from each of the mirror segments,” explains Marshall Perrin, who has the difficult task of making sure the optical system works in space. “We will need to use the science data from the telescope to precisely align the mirror segments so they produce a single, sharp image.”

Alongside the JWST, the scientists and engineers at the STScI are putting plans in place for two other flagship projects. First up will be the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), which will have a much wider field of view than either Hubble or the JWST and so will yield large numbers of data for astronomical analysis. With a mission to search for dark energy and to image exoplanets and debris disks, WFIRST is planned for launch in 2024 – although a final decision will be made in 2017.

At the same time, momentum is growing behind an ambitious plan to launch a 12 m optical telescope in the 2030s. Such a large mirror will offer unprecedented resolution for revealing distant galaxies and enabling closer examination of the planets in our own solar system, while scientists at the STScI are in the vanguard of efforts around the world to develop a coronagraph that for the first time would allow direct imaging of Earth-like planets. “We want to make a big stride,” says Jason Tumlinson, an astronomer at the STScI. “We know we can make significant advances in the technology if we have enough time.”

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