If all goes according to plan, the Webb space telescope will take to the stars in 2014. Administrators have tasked this upcoming space telescope with a big job: no less than photographing some of the universe's first-ever galaxies.
Not that it won't have the wherewithal to take on the task. The Webb will include 18 hexagonal reflectors as part of what essentially is a a giant mirror that's about seven times larger than the one found on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Of late, however, there have been concerns that technical problems might cause the Webb to miss that launch deadline. Late last year researchers at the University of Arizona turned up issues with about 2 percent of the pixels in a detector which would be incorporated into the telescope's Near Infrared Camera.
This is an image of what NASA says is the most distant galaxy detected so far (inset). This galaxy's light took over 13 billion years to reach Earth. NASA hopes that the extra technological sophistication built into the Webb will enable the new telescope to reach even farther into space.
The Webb telescope is so big that it will need to be folded up for launch. Once it shoots about 1 million miles into space, it will receive a signal commanding it to open up. You can see how this is supposed to work by watching this NASA video.
NASA engineers in a clean room with the Integrated Science Instrument Module, or ISIM. This is the centerpiece of the Webb telescope. When complete, the unit will provide support for the engine and other components. The vehicle sports a sun shield that NASA estimates is roughly equivalent to the size of a tennis court.
The Near-Infrared Spectrograph is designed to observe 100 objects simultaneously. It will be the first spectrograph in space that has this kind of multi-object capability.
To give the public an idea of how this will look in practice, Northrup Grumman constructed a full-scale model of the Webb telescope. Built largely of aluminum and steel, the model weighs 12,000 pounds and is approximately 80 feet long, 40 feet wide and 40 feet tall.
Credit: Northrup Grumman
The Engineering Design Unit primary mirror segment, coated in gold.
Parts of the telescope underwent cryogenic testing at the Marshall Space Flight Center in 2006 to measure stability. And stability will be job 1 as the backplane pictured in the accompanying image will need to tightly grip the mirror motionless in order to maintain a sharp focus as it photographs deep space.
The Webb will include a massive grid of microshutter cells that will open and shut when a magnetic field is applied. NASA says that the technology will allow it to capture the spectra of more than 100 objects simultaneously. Also, the microshutters will help block out light - a key feature as the objects being investigated are quite a distance away.
The primary mirror of the observatory being assembled at the Marshall Space Flight Center.
A sun shield showing one of the five layers being installed at Northrop Grumman.
Credit: Northrop Grumman.
An engineering test unit of guidance sensors undergo cryogenic testing at the David Florida Lab in Canada.
After passing passed its test readiness review, the Webb telescope's Mid-Infrared Instrument begins thermal vacuum testing.
The NIRCam engineering test unit optical bench with mass simulators in preparation for testing.