Press Release

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Marks Program Milestone With Completion of Giant Flight Sunshield Alignment Table

By SpaceRef Editor
October 13, 2011
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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Marks Program Milestone With Completion of Giant Flight Sunshield Alignment Table

The 2,000-pound platform that engineers will use to precisely align the Webb telescope’s enormous five-layer sunshield is completed, with work slated to begin on flight-like template membranes early next year. Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) is leading the design and development effort for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

“The sunshield has now moved to a very significant pre-flight level of development as we continue to meet the challenges of engineering this one-of-a-kind component,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and Webb Telescope program manager for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. “Together with the recent completion of the mirrors, we are making noteworthy progress through the telescope’s integration and test phase.”

The giant table will be shipped to teammate ManTech International Corporation’s NeXolve facility in Huntsville, Ala., where the work will take place. Constructed of aluminum and weighing about 2,000 lbs., the table is approximately 33 x 70 ft., over half the size of the sunshield, which is as big as a doubles tennis court.

The sunshield membrane layers, each as thin as a human hair, are made of Kapton, a very tough, high performance plastic with a reflective metallic coating. Each one of five “template” or pre-flight model layers will be laid out on the table where holes will be made in the exact locations needed to attach the layers to the structure for launch. To ensure proper fit and function, the hole positions are different for each layer and their locations are controlled to a small fraction of an inch.

Hole positioning is a critical task because the sunshield layers must be held in a predetermined configuration to survive launch so that they can later unfold in a carefully orchestrated way.

The observatory will be pointed so that the Sun, Earth and Moon are always on one side, with the sunshield acting like an umbrella to protect the telescope (the mirrors and instruments) from the heat of the sun and warm spacecraft electronics. The sunshield will passively cool the telescope to a temperature of -375 degrees F, which is needed to prevent the observatory’s own heat from “blinding” its infrared sensing instruments.

The process will begin on the five template membranes in January 2012 and continue through the year, interspersed with fit checks on a full-size mock-up of the telescope at Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing facility in Redondo Beach. Construction of the five flight membranes is slated to begin in mid-2013.

Successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s next-generation space observatory. It is the most powerful space telescope ever built. Webb will observe the most distant objects in the universe, provide images of the very first galaxies ever formed and study planets around distant stars. The Webb Telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

Northrop Grumman is a leading global security company providing innovative systems, products and solutions in aerospace, electronics, information systems, and technical services to government and commercial customers worldwide. Please visit for more information.

SpaceRef staff editor.