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Webb Space Telescope: Building the Next Discovery Machine

Season 1Nov 30, 2021

Webb is preparing for a million-mile journey to its lookout point over the universe. Engineers have been hard at work designing, installing, and testing the world’s next discovery machine that will change astronomy for years to come. Join Kenneth Harris, Joe Sprofera, and Rene Doyon as they explain what it took to engineer Webb

NASA's Curious Universe

Webb Space Telescope Mini-Series

JWST Mini, Episode Two: “Webb Space Telescope: Building the Next Discovery Machine”

Introducing NASA’s Curious Universe

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About the Episode:

Webb is preparing for a million mile journey to its lookout point over the universe. Engineers have been hard at work designing, installing, and testing the world’s next discovery machine that will change astronomy for years to come. Join Kenneth Harris, Joe Sprofera, and Rene Doyon as they explain what it took to engineer Webb.



NASA's Curious Universe

[Song: Wavering Thoughts Instrumental by Dorier]

Kenneth Harris:What we hope to learn from Webb is more about our universe and the building blocks of how we got here.

Kenneth Harris:Being more on the engineering side of things, once this satellite goes up, you know, our work is quote, unquote, “done”, because it’s already assembled and in space. And we rely on the scientists on the project to give us the data necessary, but I am really interested to see what we get back, to see a better understanding of our universe as a whole.

[Song: Modular Odyssey Instrumental by Frenod]

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. Our universe is a wild and wonderful place. I’m Padi Boyd, and in this podcast, NASA is your tour guide!

HOST PADI BOYD: NASA’s soon-to-be-launched James Webb Space Telescope is such a fascinating mission that we are dedicating four episodes of Curious Universe to learning about its science, engineering, people, and launch. This is part two of our Webb mini-series, and we’re talking about engineering!

HOST PADI BOYD: Once it’s out in orbit around the Sun, the James Webb Space Telescope is going to make incredible discoveries about planets, black holes, galaxies, and more.

[Song: Marimba Rhythms by Hamilton Winch]

HOST PADI BOYD: But how do you design a telescope strong enough to face the harsh environment of space, and send back revolutionary information about our universe?

Kenneth Harris:Hi, everyone, my name is Kenneth Harris. I am a satellite engineer on the James Webb Space Telescope.

HOST PADI BOYD: Engineers like Kenneth were tasked with a tricky job: design and build a new telescope that will do all of the science we mentioned in our last episode.

HOST PADI BOYD: Sounds simple, right?

HOST PADI BOYD: Not quite… Scientists and engineers have spent years planning for the James Webb Space Telescope.

HOST PADI BOYD: After all, this telescope has a very important role to play…

Kenneth Harris:So, what is it? The James Webb Space Telescope. It’s basically a space observatory. It’s the size of a tennis court. And so much amazing technology is put into this thing that it’s an amazing structure to see and to have worked on.

HOST PADI BOYD: Webb is a discovery powerhouse that’s designed to look back in time and record information about the cosmos in infrared light. With 18 hexagonal mirrors coated in gold, the telescope is truly a spectacle to look at. But its alluring designs hold great meaning.

HOST PADI BOYD: Scientists will use Webb to unlock mysteries of our cosmos and learn more about the first galaxies to ever exist.

HOST PADI BOYD: Webb engineers were able to build off of some existing technology, including from previous telescopes, but many things needed to be outright invented for Webb! Some of those new inventions include specialized light detectors and new sunshield materials.

HOST PADI BOYD: A few of those inventions are already being used on Earth in eye surgery and other areas.

HOST PADI BOYD: And, with a mission like Webb, everythingis connected.

Kenneth Harris:Webb is made up of a number of sub-systems.

[Song: Emboldened Willpower 1 Underscore by Goodman]

Kenneth Harris:As an integration engineer, what you basically do is take these different subsystems and combine them into one to make sure things are functioning properly.

Kenneth Harris: I assemble things from IKEA, basically. You have this huge structure, you have this set of instructions, and you’re putting it together, it’s a lot more complicated than that. But essentially, I’m a builder. For small kids, I often relate it to LEGOS, for just like, “Hey, have you ever put these LEGO sets together, it’s just like that.” You have this really, really complex structure, you’ve got this amazing team behind you, you’ve got these procedures that you put a ton of hours into, and a ton of thought into, and you’re really just on the floor in the cleanroom, executing what’s what’s on paper.

HOST PADI BOYD: A clean room is exactly what it sounds like… a room that’s extremely sanitized!

HOST PADI BOYD: It’s a special design laboratory where engineers tinker with the tools that will eventually go to space. NASA uses clean rooms to keep our spacecraft safe from Earthly contaminants… like dust or hair.

[Song: State of Matter Instrumental by Gleissner]

Kenneth Harris:The SSDIF, which is at Goddard, is one of the largest cleanrooms in North America. It’s this gigantic room, this gigantic room that is, you know, kept at a certain air purification level that allows us to work on this extremely sensitive material that eventually goes into space. And we’ve realized that we need to work in cleanroom environments because of just how sensitive these materials are. Even dust on one of the mirrors would be bad news. So that’s why we use a space like this.

HOST PADI BOYD: And a clean room needs to meet such specific conditions that you can’t just waltz into one… you’ve got to wear a protective suit. It’s what scientists and engineers call “bunnying up.” Before getting into a clean room, you put on a white suit, white cap, and white booties… which makes you look like… well, a large white rabbit!

Kenneth Harris:There’s this weird thing where you have the unclean side and then the clean side of the cleanroom. So you put on one boot on one side, you swing your leg over, put that boot on to the clean side, while keeping your other leg in the air and then put the other boot on and now both of your clean feet are on the cleanroom side and nothing’s on the unsanitized side.

Kenneth Harris:The first time it took me about, about 15 minutes to do all that, understanding it, then I got quick with it. It was probably five minutes after that. But that’s just the staging area. And then depending on what cleanroom you’re in, you might have a pre-clean before you get into the cleanroom. It’s kind of confusing.

HOST PADI BOYD: Between all the different pieces that make up the telescope, Webb has spent years in clean rooms around the world. But it didn’t all come together in one room until the summer of 2019 in Redondo Beach, California. That’s when engineers at Northrop Grumman Space Systems put the telescope part of Webb on top of the sunshield and connected all of the wires together to make it a single spacecraft.

HOST PADI BOYD: A few months after launch, Webb will need to do an intricate unfolding maneuver in order to actually be able to use those fancy tools we’ve talked about and send back information to scientists eagerly waiting on the ground.

HOST PADI BOYD: While in orbit, Webb will unfold its delicate five-layered sunshield.

HOST PADI BOYD: Webb will then “deploy” its primary mirror which scientists will use to detect the faint light of faraway stars and galaxies.

Joe Sprofera:My name is Joe Sprofera. I kind of have a number of different titles but the main thing I do is work on deployments and operations for the vehicle here at Space Park at Northrop Grumman.

[Song: Hyperconscious Instrumental by Oliver]

HOST PADI BOYD: Just like a sports team practices before a big game, engineers run multiple tests here on Earth before the telescope is cleared to launch. This is crucial so that engineers can anticipate how Webb might perform under different circumstances… and tackle any issues before the telescope even touches the launch pad!

HOST PADI BOYD: In 2020, Webb went through its final round of what engineers like Joe call “environmental tests.” That’s because these tests mimic the space environment Webb will encounter after launch.

[Sounds of Acoustic Testing in a Lab]

HOST PADI BOYD: Most recently, the telescope went through acoustic and vibration testing. During these tests, engineers shake and vibrate Webb to see how it will hold up during launch.

Joe Sprofera:When we come out of that testing, the main thing we look to do is check the state of health of the vehicle and do a bunch of tests. And that includes doing actual deployments of the physical system to show that the system survived the tests and is functioning as we would want it to.

HOST PADI BOYD: But engineers don’t want to just test that Webb’s deployments are working properly on Earth. They want to see how it might do in space. Since we can’t copy the exact environment on the ground, we simulate the space conditions in a test environment as best as we can…

Joe Sprofera: The way in which we simulate deploying in a zero-gravity field is special hardware that we’ve designed that connects to the spacecraft. We use special equipment, a lot of times, something like cables, pulleys, weights and counterbalances that will help react the weight of the hardware on the ground so that it doesn’t have to see those non-flight loads during a deployment test.

Joe Sprofera: The more interesting days involve running tests in the high bay, and deployment days are, I think, really the best engineering days. You’re out there with a big team on the floor with a lot of experts in design and analysis and conducting tests. We’re out there as a big team running these deployments with all the offload equipment hooked up to the flight hardware that we’re monitoring and tracking as we command it through the flight electronics. You’re actually seeing the vehicle move and reconfigure from a stowed state to a deployed state like it will following launch on orbit. That’s kind of the culmination of everything that’s been done for, you know, the last 20 years on this program, where all the analysis and design work between the flight hardware and the mechanical ground support equipment that ties into it to let us do these tests comes together to execute this big event on the ground. Those are the fun, exciting days.

HOST PADI BOYD: Pulling off a mission like Webb involves a grand orchestration of engineers and scientists all across the globe.

HOST PADI BOYD: From assembling very large aspects of Webb, like the hexagonal mirrors, to crafting the smallest tools on the telescope, every person who is a part of the mission has a key role to play. And the instruments aboard Webb, which will collect valuable scientific information, represent a lot of careful engineering work and state-of-the-art technology.

[Song: A Little Optimism 1 Underscore by Goodman]

HOST PADI BOYD: Let’s take a closer look at one of those instruments.

Rene Doyon:My name is Rene Doyon, I’ve been working on James Webb since 2001, early days of JWST. And I’m the principal investigator of the F-G-S N-I-R-I-S-S instrument on board James Webb. I’m basically the P-I of the Canadian instrument.

HOST PADI BOYD: Rene is a professor at the University of Montreal, and he oversees one of several instruments on the observatory. The instrument he oversees will help Webb capture a lot of new information. One of its primary functions will be to help Webb detect light emitted by faraway worlds… called exoplanets.

HOST PADI BOYD: But that’s not all!

Rene Doyon: It’s actually two instruments in one box. So let me talk about the FGS, which is not a scientific instrument, but it’s a mission critical system. Whenever Webb will point to the sky, any object, it picks up a little star, and correct the vibration the telescope is experiencing. So this is very critical to keep the images very sharp.

Rene Doyon: On the other side of the same box is called NIRISS, which stands for the near infrared imager and slitless spectrograph, which is basically an infrared camera. And it has various observing modes to do various science. And we’re very much focused on two things, studying the early universe. So, we have a mode where we can take a spectrum of sources into the field.

Rene Doyon: We have also another important mode which is very specialized, very unique to Webb instrument. It is specialized to look at very bright objects. And what we want to do there is study exoplanet atmosphere, looking atterrestrial planets that may be habitable to hot Jupiters.

[Song: New Neighborhood Instrumental by Rimailho]

HOST PADI BOYD: “Hot Jupiters” are a type of exoplanet that are pretty common… They’re gas giant planets located very close to their stars.

HOST PADI BOYD: FGS / NIRISS wasn’t originally designed to look at exoplanets but engineers adapted it.

HOST PADI BOYD: This Canadian instrument will look at all types of exoplanets, and more.

HOST PADI BOYD: Though Webb is a large observatory, it’s composed of many smaller instruments, each of which was carefully crafted by engineers! And that’s the case with FGS / NIRISS…

Rene Doyon: It’s about the size of a big washing machines, mostly made of aluminum, it’s got mirrors in there, very fancy mirrors that reflect lights and can take an image, and is also a filter wheel, a dual wheel, which you know, can select filters, and also dispersing element prism to do all the various science that we want to do.

HOST PADI BOYD: So much of engineering comes down to design. Creating the right tool to get the job done. For Rene, working on Webb and representing the Canadian Space Agency on this historic mission has been a rewarding experience.

Rene Doyon: It’s been very exciting. And this, this, this telescope will just revolutionize our picture of the universe in many, many ways. In the early days, it was basically some kind of a dream, right to to do these very first pictures. But you know, we kept working on it. And that’s research. That’s how research works. And you learn things and there were some, some failures, and it’s not a straight line, it’s a zigzag, sometimes I go back backwards, and then go forward again. And chance also is part of part of the game. That’s how research works. It’s very exciting. I’m very proud of it.

HOST PADI BOYD: The functionality of all of Webb’s instruments will play a critical role. Webb’s tools were engineered to do the best job possible, but there is beauty in these engineers’ designs, too.

[Song: The Milky Way Instrumental by Dorier]

Kenneth Harris:The inspiration of James Webb, I think is far-reaching, because you have the opportunity to combine science with art. There is an artistic feature of James Webb that can’t go unnoticed. I would hope that individuals can see something that took so much time and that also is artistically creative. And, and that so many minds have gone into that individuals are inspired to continue to pursue whatever, you know, career path they’re going after, and kind of see how it blends into the world of space.

HOST PADI BOYD: For Kenneth, the inspiration of working on a project like Webb goes beyond the beauty and potential for discovery. Kenny grew up watching his father build important projects right here at NASA.

HOST PADI BOYD: As a Black American…seeing someone who looked like him, and who cared about the same things he did, inspired Kenny to pursue his career path.

Kenneth Harris:My greatest role model in my life is my dad. And he’s also an engineer at NASA. So, I spent, even before I was an intern, even before I had an opportunity, I spent a lot of time at NASA in building five at his desk after school. He’d pick me up from school, including my sister and he’d bring us back to the office to say, “Hey, I got some work to finish up. Your mom will come get you soon.” Or, you know, “you’ll stay with me until we leave.”

Kenneth Harris: And he was so dedicated to his work but still made time for his family, still made time for everything else he needed to do. I had the fortunate opportunity to see that an engineer isn’t just someone that is confined to a lab or confined to their desk like they have a life they have, they’re able to do these other things, and also saw an individual that looked like me in the field. And that was something that was really, really important to me.

HOST PADI BOYD: So many people have had a hand in bringing the James Webb Space Telescope to where it is now. And countless others will learn from this telescope for years to come.

HOST PADI BOYD: The international nature of the project, bringing people from different countries, backgrounds, experiences, and identities together…paves the way for the next generation of engineers and scientists to see themselves represented in the work and pursue whatever discoveries come next.

Kenneth Harris:This is a longer mission to get off the ground I’d say. It also kind of pushes the envelope of persistence and dedication and passion for the field.

[Song: Tale of Time Instrumental by Gleissner]

At heart, everyone’s everyone’s really interested in seeing what happens with this thing. Everyone’s really, has this childlike innocence when it comes to science and technology and…we have a passion for what we do.


HOST PADI BOYD: When scientists first dreamed of a more powerful space telescope, the successor to our Hubble Space Telescope, we knew what we wanted to accomplish… but we didn’t yet know how to get there, or what tools we’d need in order to make it happen.

HOST PADI BOYD: Now, this behemoth telescope, the largest and most uniquely qualified telescope ever sent to space, will change the way we think about our place in the cosmos.

HOST PADI BOYD: When the telescope finally reaches its orbit and accomplishes all of the commissioning exercises, we’ll finally begin to see our universe in a new light. We’ll look at planets around other stars, stellar nurseries and the first galaxies in a way we’ve never been able to do before. Scientists like me will start sifting through all the new exciting data that this incredible machine is poised to discover.

HOST PADI BOYD: Like scientists everywhere on Earth, I can’t wait to see what we find. And we are so thankful to the team of engineers around the world, who turned the dream of Webb into an amazing reality.

[Song: Modular Odyssey Instrumental by Frenod]

HOST PADI BOYD: Next time on NASA’s Curious Universe…

Scarlin Hernandez: When I was a child, I would actually gaze up at the stars at night and wish I could just grab one with my bare hands if I could just reach far enough. And I certainly had nothing to lose In the city apartment I lived in with the police sirens going by I would stare out of our little window at the stars and just lose myself really.

HOST PADI BOYD: This is NASA’s Curious Universe. This episode was written and produced by Katie Atkinson, Liz Landau, and Christina Dana. The Curious Universe team includes Maddie Arnold and Micheala Sosby, with support from Elissa Fielding.

HOST PADI BOYD: Special thanks to Ryland Heagy, Amber Straughn, Paul Geitner, Eric Smith, Natasha Pinol, Alise Fischer, Laura Betz, and the James Webb Space Telescope team.

HOST PADI BOYD: If you liked this episode, please let us know by leaving us a review, tweeting about the show @NASA, and sharing with a friend.

HOST PADI BOYD: Still curious about NASA? You can send us questions about this episode or a previous one and we’ll try to track down the answers! You can email a voice recording or send a written note to Go for more information.