Nasa Builds An Extra-Chilly Successor To Hubble (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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NASA Builds An Extra Chilly Successor To Hubble

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
First, though, think about the last time you were cold, I mean, like teeth chattering, goose bump raising, shivering in your boots cold. Now, I'm going to hazard a guess and say you were probably outside and depending on where you were, the temperature very well could have been below zero. Washington, D.C.'s lowest recorded temperature is 15 degrees below zero. And in a slightly colder place, like, say, Alaska, it's more like 80 below. But if you take that last number, 80 degrees below zero, and you multiply it by five, you'll get an idea of just how cold the James Webb Space Telescope will be after it's launched a million miles from earth in the year 2018.

MR. RAY LUNDQUIST

00:00:41
The whole thing in orbit will be below 40 Kelvin, which is about 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

SHEIR

00:00:47
This is Ray Lundquist.

LUNDQUIST

00:00:48
I'm systems engineer for the James Webb Space Telescope.

SHEIR

00:00:51
Lundquist works at Goddard's Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The James Webb Space Telescope is an international collaboration among NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Goddard is managing the project, named for the NASA administrator who played a crucial role on the Apollo program in the 1960s. Now, of course, we already have a space telescope, Hubble, which went into orbit in 1990. Webb is Hubble's successor and is 100 times more sensitive. As to why those frigid temperatures Lundquist mentions...

LUNDQUIST

00:01:22
Below 40 Kelvin, which is about 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

SHEIR

00:01:26
...play a huge part. And we'll explain all of that in just a moment. But first, hear that whooshing in the background? That's the sound of filtered air flowing through a very special facility at Goddard.

LUNDQUIST

00:01:36
It's called the S.SD.I.F., the Spacecraft Systems Development and Integration Facility.

SHEIR

00:01:41
And we're in the S.S.D.I.F.'s clean room, a vast and nearly contaminant free chamber where people like Lundquist are testing and assembling parts of the Webb telescope. It's actually the same room where much of Hubble's work was done.

LUNDQUIST

00:01:52
Yeah, we just actually kicked Hubble out of here, the last year -- year before last in order to get ready for this program.

SHEIR

00:01:57
As you enter the clean room, you have to step on this bright blue dust grabbing sticky mat. I want to get the sound of that sticky mat.

SHEIR

00:02:06
Sound of shoes on the sticky mat there. But not just any shoes. Everyone in the clean room, myself included, is padding around in these calf length, elasticized white booties with matching jumpsuits and hoods. The whole get-up, says optical engineer, Theo Hadjmichael is affectionately known in the biz as a bunny suit.

MR. THEO HADJMICHAEL

00:02:23
We're big white rabbits, gown from head to toe in a white material that's very, very smooth. It doesn't allow anything to accumulate.

SHEIR

00:02:31
Because think about it, particles of schmutz on the Webb telescope would be like fingerprints on your camera lens, only so much worse.

HADJMICHAEL

00:02:40
In fact, the particles will distribute because there will be no atmosphere to contain them. So, you know, a small fingerprint will spread across the optic and contaminate the surface.

SHEIR

00:02:51
Thereby ruining the images Webb's expected to beam back to earth. And what glorious images they'll be, or so says Lee Fineberg, Webb's optical telescope element manager.

MR. LEE FINEBERG

00:03:02
The most rewarding thing about working on a space telescope, and we had this experience when we fixed Hubble, is when those first images come down. People have been on this project for 10 years, 15 years and we're all going to make it through to the finish line because we want to see those images.

SHEIR

00:03:17
It's like a sonogram almost, you know.

FINEBERG

00:03:19
Exactly, and you're seeing your baby for the first time.

MR. JOHN MATHER

00:03:22
And seeing our own history out there in the sky.

SHEIR

00:03:24
That's Webb's senior project scientist, the Nobel Prize Winning John Mather. I meet Mather and Fineberg in an observation area overlooking the clean room. And what Mather means by seeing our own history is this. Webb is so powerful, that once it's up in space...

MATHER

00:03:40
We can see the first objects that formed after the Big Bang, the first stars and galaxies. That's what we're planning to look for.

SHEIR

00:03:46
That blows my mind.

MATHER

00:03:47
Well, it blows my mind, too. That's why I love this project.

SHEIR

00:03:50
It's got to take a lot to blow your mind given what you deal with every day.

MATHER

00:03:53
Yes, but this does it.

SHEIR

00:03:55
But wait, there's more. Something else Webb will be able to see, our planets around other stars.

MATHER

00:04:02
We can even see whether a planet could have water on the surface so that's how we'll tell if there's a planet that could have life because it would have water.

SHEIR

00:04:10
And that, my friends, that is where the whole cold thing comes in, you know.

MATHER

00:04:15
Below 40 Kelvin, which is about 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

SHEIR

00:04:18
See, the Webb telescope works by using mirrors to observe infrared light from distance objects. Infrared is heat radiation. And all warm things like the sun, the earth, the moon, the telescope itself emit infrared light. But if you keep the telescope super cold, like, say...

MATHER

00:04:37
Below 40 Kelvin, which is about 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero.

SHEIR

00:04:41
...okay, that's the last time you'll hear that, I promise. But the point is, if you keep the telescope super cold, then heat can't muddy up the images the telescope is collecting. John Mather says that's part of the problem with Hubble.

MATHER

00:04:52
The Hubble telescope glows and emits hundreds and thousands of watts of infrared power and so it can't possibly be used to observe those same wave lengths where it's emitting bright light.

SHEIR

00:05:02
The Webb telescope, on the other hand, has this five layered tennis court sized Kapton sun shield, Kapton is similar to a mylar, like, in a balloon. And using the sun shield is like slathering yourself in SPF one million.

MATHER

00:05:17
Let me add that after you get that, then you have such extraordinary sensitivity, we can see the heat that's emitted by a bumble bee at the distance of the moon.

SHEIR

00:05:26
Can you say that again? Did I hear that right?

MATHER

00:05:28
We can see the heat that's emitted by a bumble bee at the distance of the moon.

SHEIR

00:05:32
And that, says Lee Fineberg, makes the James Webb Space Telescope, revolutionary.

FINEBERG

00:05:37
I have a lot of friends who remember the Apollo days and they think back to these amazing things NASA did. And, you know, what we're doing, I think, on James Webb is our generation's version of Apollo. You know, we've been to the moon, but we haven't built a telescope that can see the early universe.

SHEIR

00:05:54
And sure, he says, it's challenging, not to mention costly. Congress has approved $8 billion to launch Webb and several hundred million more to keep it up in space for the five years required for operation. But Fineberg is certain it's worth it.

FINEBERG

00:06:09
It's part of discovery, you know, it's manifest destiny. There's just this great desire to understand, you know, what we can't see now and what we haven't been able to see.

SHEIR

00:06:17
Which is enough to warm anyone's heart, he says, even if it takes a whole lot of cold to do it.

SHEIR

00:06:35
To learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope and to check out a webcam, get it, web-cam, web cam of Goddard's clean room, visit our website metroconnection.org.
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