Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: June 2010

Future Scientists?

June 24, 2010 by Massimo Stiavelli

blog_2010_06_24A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to talk about the Hubble and the Webb space telescopes to what is for me an unusual audience — elementary school kids in the grades K-5.

I took part in the science career fair at one of the Baltimore County elementary schools, and found it an interesting experience. The majority of the kids have heard about Hubble, even though some don’t have a clear idea of what it is. I started with Hubble and what it can do, then described  Webb and how it will improve over Hubble in the study of distant galaxies. I had a little model of Hubble and had built a paper model of Webb available on the Web. The paper model took me three days to build and left me with the feeling that the real observatory might be actually simpler. Still, it was a useful tool to show how different Hubble and Webb look.

The majority of the kids liked the Hubble pictures but were not so interested in learning how it works or how its successor will outperform it. But perhaps they will be the future taxpayers eager to look at Hubble and Webb pictures and willing to support them. One kid, the only one out of many, thanked me — and said he was not interested in getting a Hubble picture. I hope it’s because he already has plenty at home!

Finally, a significant minority wanted to listen to more details, and those occasions were the most gratifying for me. It was very satisfying to tell stories about Hubble and Webb and see these young  people’s eyes locked on you, eager to learn more. Perhaps these are the future researchers, scientists and engineers who will keep the country competitive and at the technological forefront in the next decades. One young girl fought back her shyness and told me in a soft voice that I had a very interesting job. I agreed and told her that some day she could have the same job. I really hope that she and many of her generation do.

JWST in the Park

June 17, 2010 by Mario Livio
The Webb Telescope in Battery Park

The Webb Telescope in Battery Park

The “World Science Festival” took place in New York City from June 1-6, 2010, and the Webb Telescope was one of its stars.

This was a magnificent celebration of science and the arts. In no fewer than 40 events, scientists and artists engaged in conversations, performances, presentations and debates on topics ranging from black holes to music, from mathematics to poisonous frogs.

A full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope was assembled in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. Thousands of people, many of whom were young students, came to admire this impressive, tennis-court-size representation of cutting-edge technology, which also resembles a modern sculpture.

They listened to talks, asked questions, watched videos, and were intrigued by a demonstration of an infrared camera. They were fascinated by the science of the 21st century, and the new horizons that this telescope will open up.

Poetic phrases such as “on a clear day you can see forever” were running through my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking that there was no better place to put this model, symbolizing the almost unlimited opportunities of future knowledge, than Battery Park, where the Statue of Liberty is in sight!

Checking Webb Twice

June 10, 2010 by Massimo Stiavelli

Labeled diagram of the Webb Telescope's parts

Every major NASA project needs to undergo a number of reviews during its development. These reviews are occasions for everybody working on the project to get together and report on progress, designs, and plans in front of a group of independent engineers and specialists. The whole purpose is to verify that the development team has a credible design for the mission.

In April, the James Webb Space Telescope passed the most important of these reviews, the Critical Design Review. Several weeks ago I participated in the main rehearsal of the review — something that in our jargon is called the “dry run.” Anybody attending one would understand the “dry” part. The rehearsal is several days long and covers the whole project, including areas well outside one’s field of expertise. All this without many unexpected questions or the “suspense” of the real review!

But the dry-run is very important because this is the occasion when the various people working on the project can provide each other with feedback and make sure that there are no holes in the presentations.

The final review was held at the Northrop Grumman Redondo Beach facility in Los Angeles (CA) and every aspect of the program was presented, including the development of the individual observatory components the assembly of all components into the final observatory,  the testing of the observatory, and finally its launch, on-orbit testing and operations. Hundreds of pages of presentations were discussed over several days and  everybody attending this review was left with the clear feeling that the James Webb Space Telescope is a very complex satellite.

My expectation was that we would pass but I was curious about what areas the review team would consider the least mature and deserving of more attention. Fortunately,  the independent reviewers agreed that the development team has a sound plan forward. Though the shore is not yet in sight,  the ship is on the right course.