How To Pack A Space Telescope

Feb 8, 2018
Originally published on February 8, 2018 8:00 am

As complicated as it as to launch and operate a telescope in space, it's almost as complex to move a space telescope around here on Earth.

For the past 9 months or so, NASA has been testing the James Webb Space Telescope in a giant cryogenic chamber at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The $8.8 billion Webb telescope is the most powerful telescope NASA has ever built.

To say astronomers are looking forward to the launch of the Webb telescope is an understatement.

"For my own personal science I am ridiculously excited," says astrophysicist Jackie Faherty of the American Museum of Natural History. She studies space objects known as brown dwarfs, one of a wide variety of topics that the Webb telescope will provide data on.

Those topics range "from the first moments of when the universe was created, to what we're going to get to know about that are orbiting other stars," says Faherty, potentially including planets that could support life.

When the telescope launches next year, it is supposed to park in a spot a million miles from Earth and provide unprecedented glimpses of the earliest light in the universe.

But first it needed to move from Texas to California.

You can't just stuff a space telescope into a box when you're ready to ship it. Every step of the process involves special equipment, special planning and special attention. The packing process, from preparing the container to loading the telescope, took four days in January. Each step in the process is done slowly, to minimize the chance of error.

"We like it to go slow and steady," says Sandra Irish, an engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Her job is to make sure the telescope isn't subjected to any stresses it can't handle. It was designed to operate in the essentially weightless environment of space. Here on Earth gravity is a problem.

The entire packing process happened inside a multi-story clean room built to hold the telescope and its shipping container called STTARS, the Space Telescope Transporter Air, Road and Sea. STTARS is basically a flat pallet 110 feet long with a frame on top and a bright-white domed lid.

When it was packed, the telescope weighed about eight thousand pounds; it will get heavier when the sun shield and flight electronics get added later. Folded up for shipping, the telescope was about the size of a large school bus.

Once it was packed, the telescope was trucked over to nearby Ellington Air Force Base, loaded into a specially modified military cargo plane, and flown to Los Angeles.

There, aerospace firm Northrop Grumman will get the telescope into its launch configuration, a process that will take months. Then it goes by ship next spring from Southern California to French Guiana, where it is scheduled to be launched on an Ariane rocket in June 2019.

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The most-powerful space telescope ever built has been on a road trip across the U.S. When it launches next year, NASA expects this $8.8 billion telescope to revolutionize astronomy, but it may have already revolutionized something else - the art of packing for a vacation. Because if you can pack up a massive telescope, I mean, cramming clothes, shoes, toiletries into a suitcase is nothing, right? NPR science correspondent Joe Palca was hanging out at the Johnson Space Center in Houston as people prepared a massive telescope for the latest leg of its journey.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: You don't just stuff an $8.8 billion telescope into a box when you're ready to ship it. Everything has to be done in a clean room, so no dust or debris will get on the telescopes, mirrors or into its sensitive instruments. On this day, the telescope is sitting upright on a stand in a corner of the clean room while technicians are readying its shipping container.

NEAL PATEL: So right now what they're doing is they're just lifting the lid off. They have this specially-designed beam to lift it off of there.

PALCA: Neal Patel is a mechanical engineer. He specializes in moving spacecraft while they're on Earth. The shipping container is basically a flat pallet 110 feet long with a frame on top. There's a dome-like lid they're about to remove. The room grows silent.

PATEL: Why everyone's really quiet right now is just 'cause it's a critical op. Any time they're lifting anything overhead, it's a critical op.

PALCA: Engineers like Patel are being really, really careful in everything they do related to the telescope because they really hate to disappoint astrophysicists like Jackie Faherty.

JACKIE FAHERTY: For my own personal science, I'm ridiculously excited.

PALCA: Faherty is at the American Museum of Natural History. She studies space objects known as brown dwarfs. But Faherty says there's a ton more astronomers expect to learn using Webb.

FAHERTY: From the first moments when the universe was created to what we're going to get to know about exoplanets that are orbiting other stars that may have habitable life.

PALCA: Back in the clean room, I watch as the 10,000-pound container lid rises ever so slowly.


PALCA: Once it's clear of the pallet, things speed up. I wander over to the telescope sitting in the corner of the room. Folded up, it's about the size of a large school bus. It has a black carbon fiber body. But most striking is the 18 large gold hexagonal mirrors that will collect the starlight.

There's three large mirrors right above my head.

These mirrors will collect six times more light than the extremely successful Hubble Space Telescope. The next day, technicians began the process of unfastening the telescope from the stand it's been sitting on. The stand had been rotated so the telescope was now horizontal. Charlie Diaz is in charge of the entire move operation. He's been working on the logistics of moving the Webb telescope for more than a decade. Everything is meticulously planned. Diaz says the next step in today's operation is to remove the 16 bolts holding the telescope to its stand.

CHARLIE DIAZ: You can't just, you know, remove a bolt. You have to loosen it up, then loosen another one. This way, they're uniformly released so there are no stresses.

PALCA: It's a slow process, very slow.

SANDRA IRISH: We like it to go slow and steady.

PALCA: Sandra Irish is an aerospace engineer. Her job is to make sure the telescope isn't subjected to any stresses it can't handle. It was designed to operate in the essentially weightless environment of space. Here on Earth, gravity is a problem. Ultimately, the bolts come out. The telescope slides off the stand. It's raised up and then lowered ever so gently into its container. All the while, Sandra Irish has been watching the operation intently. I asked her if she was happy with the way the day was going.

IRISH: I think I'll being the most happy once we put on the frame and the lid and we can ship out. So - but yeah, so far, so good.

PALCA: The rest of the day went well. And a few days later, the telescope was loaded into a special C-5 cargo jet and flown to Los Angeles. It's now safely in another clean room where it will be readied for launch next year. Joe Palca, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.