Press Release

Northrop Grumman, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Complete Technology Breakthroughs for NASA’s SIM PlanetQuest

By SpaceRef Editor
November 14, 2006
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Northrop Grumman, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Complete Technology Breakthroughs for NASA’s SIM PlanetQuest

Star- and Planet-Mapping Telescope Mission Ready to Move Forward

The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) PlanetQuest program moved a step closer to searching for earth-like planets and measuring the distances to stars with the completion of key technology milestones by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and industry partner Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC – News).

SIM PlanetQuest has completed rigorous tests of ultra-precise technologies, demonstrating these technologies have achieved the maturity to meet mission goals and will be ready for a preliminary design review within twelve months. The program’s technical maturity provides the capability to support a launch early in the next decade.

“NASA mandated mission technology milestones have been validated by teams of independent experts and we’re ready to move forward beyond the technology development phase and toward supporting the President’s Vision for Space Exploration,” said Mike Herriage, Northrop Grumman Space Technology SIM program manager. “SIM is ready to enter its next phase, implementation and flight.” SIM PlanetQuest will search for Earth-like planets around nearby stars and measure their masses. This search will extend to many kinds of stars, old and young, bright and dim. It will measure the mass and brightness of stars with extreme precision, allowing astronomers to conduct stringent tests to help improve our understanding of how stars shine. SIM PlanetQuest will trace the paths of the mysterious ‘tidal tails’ of stars in dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way, our home galaxy. These gossamer tails trace the history and future evolution of the galaxy.

The eight mission technology milestones were set by NASA, which required their completion before the flight instrument construction begins. Each milestone meant creating breakthrough systems for nanometer control technology and picometer knowledge technology — systems that enable the space telescope to make extremely accurate measurements. Achievement of this level of precision means SIM PlanetQuest engineers and scientists have invented methods to accurately measure position distance changes due to vibration and temperature changes in increments of a fraction of the width of a hydrogen atom. Multiple, precise measurements are needed to detect planets of mass similar to Earth. “We can now make the long-awaited statement that ‘SIM technology is in hand,”’ said Herriage. “We may still face the traditional hurdles that challenge all space projects — constraints of mass, power, schedules, and limited budgets — but these are challenges for good engineering, not the invention of new technology.”

The SIM PlanetQuest spacecraft will fly three parallel visible light Michelson interferometry telescopes mounted on a Northrop Grumman-built Precision Structure Subsystem (PSS). The interferometers will combine or “interfere” light waves collected by two or more telescopes to achieve far greater resolution than would be possible with a single telescope. The 9-meter long (29.5 ft.) optical interferometers aboard SIM PlanetQuest will demonstrate this technology in space for the first time.

Northrop Grumman’s Space Technology is JPL’s industry partner for spacecraft development and assembly, test and launch operations and brings expertise in thermal control, vibration isolation damping, and high precision structures. JPL, the lead NASA center for mission definition, development and integration, is responsible for the telescope development and has expertise in interferometric telescopes and NASA science mission management.

SIM is a scientific and technological pathfinder and its survey of nearby planets will supply unique information to be combined with other future NASA missions, such as the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF). Both SIM PlanetQuest and TPF are part of NASA’s Navigator program, a multi-mission plan to examine stars, galaxies and planets in seeking answers to fundamental questions about how the universe and life began. JPL manages SIM PlanetQuest and TPF for NASA.

Northrop Grumman Corporation is a global defense company headquartered in Los Angeles, Calif. Northrop Grumman provides technologically advanced, innovative products, services and solutions in systems integration, defense electronics, information technology, advanced aircraft, shipbuilding and space technology. With more than 120,000 employees and operations in all 50 states and 29 countries, Northrop Grumman serves U.S. and international military, government and commercial customers.

Contact: Sally Koris
Northrop Grumman Space Technology
(310) 812-4721

SpaceRef staff editor.