NASA's Ambitious New Space Telescope Passes Critical Test
The JWST space observatory will consist of a telescope and its four associated scientific instruments, along with the giant sun shield (shown in blue).
Credit: NASA/ESA

NASA's hotly-anticipated new space observatory has passed its most significant mission milestone yet ? a critical design review that sets the stage for a planned 2014 launch.

This means that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) a huge infrared telescope designed to peer farther back into the universe's history than ever before, has met all science and engineering requirements for its upcoming mission, NASA scientists said.

?"I'm delighted by this news and proud of the Webb program's great technical achievements," said Eric Smith, the new telescope's program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. "The independent team conducting the review confirmed [that] the designs, hardware and test plans for Webb will deliver the fantastic capabilities always envisioned for NASA's next major space observatory."

Meet the James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, pegged as the successor to the 20-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, is a next-generation space observatory for exploring deep space phenomena from distant galaxies to nearby planets and stars.

The new observatory is named after the late former NASA administrator James Webb, who led the space agency from 1961 to 1968. The telescope's entire mission, which has cost about $ 1 billion more than expected and taken a few years longer than planned, is estimated to cost about $5 billion.

But scientists have said the delays and overruns pale in comparison to the secrets of the universe the James Webb Space Telescope is expected to unlock.

The telescope is dedicated to studying the universe in infrared, rather than the optical light wavelengths dominated by Hubble. That means that while Webb telescope won't take the traditional photos Hubble has made popular, it will be able to observe older light and see deeper into the universe.

The telescope is designed to provide important clues about the formation of the universe and the evolution of our own solar system, from the first light after the Big Bang to the formation of star systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth.

The review brought together multiple modeling and analysis tools. Because the observatory is too large for validation by actual testing, complex models are created to show how it will behave during launch and in the space environments in which it will be integrated.

These models are then evaluated against prior test and review results of the observatory's components.

More milestones ahead

The Mission Critical Design Review (MCDR) encompassed all previous design reviews, including the Integrated Science Instrument Module review in March 2009, the Optical Telescope Element review completed in October 2009, and the sun shield review completed in January 2010.

Next, the project schedule will undergo a review within the next few months. Final approval for the spacecraft design, which passed a preliminary review in 2009, is slated for next year.

"This program landmark is the capstone of seven years of intense, focused effort on the part of NASA, Northrop Grumman and our program team members," said David DiCarlo, sector vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman Space Systems, located in Redondo Beach, Calif. "We have always had high confidence that our observatory design would meet the goals of this pioneering space mission."

While the MCDR approved the telescope design and gave the official go-ahead for manufacturing, hardware development on the mirror segments has been in progress for several years.

This month, ITT Corp. in Rochester, N.Y., demonstrated robotic mirror installation equipment designed to position segments on the backplane. The segments' position will be fine-tuned to tolerances of a fraction of the width of a human hair.

Additionally, the telescope's sun shield moved into its fabrication and testing phase earlier this year.

The three major elements of Webb ? the Integrated Science Instrument Module, Optical Telescope Element and the spacecraft itself ? will proceed through hardware production, assembly and testing prior to delivery for observatory integration and testing that is currently scheduled to begin in 2012.

The JWST is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The mission is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.