Flying a telescope

Raytheon controls will help the James Webb Space Telescope unveil the universe

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope structure is poised for mirror assembly. (NASA photo

NASA calls it "the premier observatory of the next decade."

The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2018, will provide new insight into some of the biggest secrets of the universe. Operated by ground controls from Raytheon, the telescope will peer at the first stars and galaxies in the universe, capturing infrared light that has been traveling for billions of years. And it will provide new views of our celestial neighbors.

"Webb will let us look further into space and time to probe the primeval universe,” said Walt Burns, Raytheon program manager for the telescope. “And it will be controlled with Raytheon hardware and software."

Webb is a large, international project led by NASA, with many partners and companies providing different components. Raytheon installed the Webb's ground control system on the top floor of a building on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Raytheon did the work for the Space Telescope Science Institute, which hosts the ground instrumentation just like it did for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Ground controls for satellites or spacecraft are usually built after development is well under way, but Raytheon started early in the process. That allowed the spacefaring telescope to start talking to the ground system, which reduces risk for the 2018 flight.

“It doesn’t make sense to use two different systems during integration and testing,” said Rusty Whitman, systems engineering manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Raytheon has a long history on the project. We are making good use of everything done in integration and testing and developing lots of procedures.”

The same Raytheon software that will fly the telescope is being used to “fly” the rigorous testing being performed ahead of the launch. Instruments are being tested at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The huge mirrors at the heart of the telescope are being tested at the Johnson Space Center, in an eight-foot-tall cryogenics chamber that was used for the Apollo program.

“No one has ever done anything like JWST,” said Whitman. “Webb is a very large spacecraft, and it’s a very large job to operate it.”

The telescope picks up infrared light and beams observations back to Earth. “The observatory is smart. We don’t actually aim it at the stars,” said Burns. “We upload an observation plan and Webb has the onboard computer autonomy to pinpoint targets and make the actual observations.”

Raytheon tech is also part of the data downlink chain, helping to transfer information to the system that makes it available to astronomers and other scientists.

“The data is expected to yield extraordinary results," Burns said, that will "revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”

Raytheon's ground controls in the Mission Operations Center that will help run the Webb.

Raytheon's ground controls in the Mission Operations Center that will help run the Webb.

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Published On: 04/04/2016
Last Updated: 01/11/2018