SPACE (KXAN) – “Whatever’s out there, Webb is going to see it,” reflected Mike Menzel, a NASA engineer who has been working on the James Webb Space Telescope for 26 years. The telescope is celebrating one year of service this month.
“As an engineer who was on this for 26 years, my favorite was the first deep field image,” Menzel said. He serves as the Missions Systems Engineer for Webb. Before that, he worked on the Hubble telescope. “In 12 hours, we broke the Hubble record. We saw a galaxy whose lights have been traveling to us for about 13.4 billion years.”
Webb is the largest satellite NASA has ever launched into space. Unlike Hubble, Webb sees in infrared light, which travels further and through objects. Scientists have described it as acting like a time machine.
“If you look at Neptune in the visible light, you’ll barely see any rings at all. But when you look at it in James Webb [with] the infrared, bang, they pop out vividly.”
Looking back in time and space
“The photos are wowing all of us,” Menzel said.
To celebrate the anniversary of the Webb Telescope, NASA released a new photo of dozens of baby stars. “You’re seeing one of the closest star-forming regions in our galaxy,” Menzel said of the photo.
“It’s a region where a gas and dust are condensing and falling in on itself to form stars”
Building the James Webb Space Telescope
“The goal here was to build a telescope one hundred times more powerful than anything we’ve had before,” Jane Rigby, Webb Operations Project Scientist with NASA, said last July.
Menzel worked on the telescope for two decades. Building something that had never been built before required trial and error. The team built models, called breadboards, on Earth before they began construction of the telescope.
According to Menzel, the hardest thing to build on the telescope was the sunshield, a massive diamond-shaped contraption that is attached to the underside of the telescope.
The shield keeps the telescope very, very cold. It has to be -370-degrees Fahrenheit to properly see in infrared. “To get that cold, you can’t build a big refrigerator to refrigerate three metric tons of telescope.”
The shield needed to survive the trip, but also fold up inside the rocket before it was deployed. The team built a version on Earth to experiment on.
“We kind of beat the hell out of that thing, learning how to fold it, how not to fold it, how it should deploy what could get snagged,” Menzel said.
Their tests paid off. The shield and telescope deployed without issue. The Webb Telescope is expected to operate for 20 years.