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Webb Model Transforms at NASA; Student Engineers Behind the Controls
September 27, 2013

A car-sized model of one of the most advanced projects NASA is working on – the James Webb Space Telescope – unfolded at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. on Aug. 21, 2013. Built like a transformer and controlled robotically by engineering students from California Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, the model illustrates how Webb will be deployed one million miles out in space.


Looking like a giant honeycomb sitting on top of futuristic silver-colored sails, once at its destination, Webb, the largest telescope ever built, will see back in time. Because of the way that light travels, this infrared telescope will be capable of capturing images of the universe from 13.4 billion years in light travel time.

"Webb is the next satellite that will see back to the very early universe, to see the first galaxies that were born after the Big Bang," said model project member Paul Innes. "Nothing like this has ever been done before."

To demonstrate the sheer size and complexity of this mission, for the past two and a half years these students have been working with their mentors to build the first physical representation of the Webb deployment. The team thought creatively about how, in twenty minutes, they could represent the different stages of deployment to the general public.

Audience members at NASA Goddard watched the solar array unfold behind the telescope, the sunshield open up and the 18-segmented mirrors move together to form one complete mirror. To make this happen the student engineers even used parts of car antennas, the inside of a flashlight and garden materials to create the model.

[image-51]"This is one of the most complicated and technologically advanced projects," said model project member Chas Carlson. "The purpose behind the model is to show how it's going to open up. There's no way to easily fix any mishaps with the real thing once on-orbit and this model helps to convey the complexity of everything."

Before Webb is launched into space it needs to be folded up tightly and meticulously. Engineer and model project mentor Joe Pitman explained why this is so important. "We are doing everything we can to fold this massive telescope as small as we can to fit it into the biggest launch vehicle we can," said Pitman.

Throughout their time engineering this 1/6 scale model of Webb the team gained valuable hands-on experience in the design, fabrication, assembly, integration and test of complex space systems. Putting together the model once it was shipped from their lab in California took the team 17 hours.

"In school you learn how to make a paper design, but you don't get this sort of experience," said Carlson. "You learn how involved and how many steps there are in making something like this. We had five people and each of us took a different element. You can take as many classes as you want but you are not going to get that hands-on experience that you will from working on a project like this one."

The team used only publicly available information to develop their model of Webb, which they called SDEM, or the Webb telescope Subscale Deployments Engineering Model. In order to unfold the telescope robotically the team had to do a lot of work with electronics.

"I learned how to set up a network, and now I know a lot more about electronics and programming," said model project member Reed Danis. "We were able to branch out and learn knew things."

Preparing to unfold the model at Goddard, they were surrounded by engineers and scientists that have been working on the actual telescope.

"Giving the presentation in front of project members was cool," said model project member Adam Chase. "To see as many people on such a high level that are excited about what we're doing and passionate about the project was definitely cool."

The teams showcased the model in the same building where the hardware for Webb is coming together and were able to see the engineers working meticulously to put the actual telescope together.

As a team, the student engineers understand how much dedication goes into Webb's engineering. The students fit work on the model around their regular schoolwork, and in the summers they sometimes worked 60-hour weeks.

"The amount of work that was put into this was crazy. I don’t know any normal person that would have put that much time into this," said Pitman's grandson Brady Morrow, who was at Goddard during the model unfolding event. "They tested every piece of this five or six times."

Engineers Joe Pitman and Eric Grosso guided the student team, who worked to only two requirements: work collaboratively and with only public domain information.

"They succeeded in the face of many difficulties," said Grosso. "This was a definitely a team project, they had a vision and they saw it thorough."

One of the biggest challenges the team encountered was shipping something so fragile across the country. They worked very hard to design and build crates that were strong enough.

"Two days ago was the best day for me. I was the lead on the shipping crates, and once we opened it up it, I gave a huge sigh of relief," said model project member Colin Burt. "I was prepared for the worst and ready for the best. We brought a tool chest, ready to go to war with it. But it all worked out."

The SDEM model will be at Goddard for the month of September. The team also built a deployable 1/20th scale model that they gave to Webb Project Manager Bill Ochs of NASA Goddard.

The engineering students have become incredibly close working on this project. Many of them have transitioned to engineering jobs already. "I've gotten a feel for how industry works and been able to meet everyone," said Innes. "Now I'm working full time for a company and it doesn't feel like work."

Laura Betz
NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

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Engineering students from California Polytechnic Institute brought their Webb Telescope deployment model to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
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NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
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Webb model team members
The team from left to right: (Back row) Adam Chase, Brady Morrow, Joe Pitman, Chas Carlson and Reed Danis. (Front row) Colin Burt, Eric Grosso and Paul Innes.
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NASA Goddard/Laura Betz
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Page Last Updated: October 17th, 2013
Page Editor: Rob Garner