Technology from RUAG Space protected the James Webb Space Telescope during launch and flight into space. A payload adapter placed the observatory into orbit. The launch happened on December 25.
The James Webb Space Telescope – or short “Webb” – is the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built. The successor of the Hubble space telescope will be able to peer into the oldest, most distant areas of the universe to study some of the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang more than 13.5 billion years ago. The satellite has been developed under the leadership of NASA in cooperation with the European and the Canadian Space agencies. It was launched from the European spaceport in Kourou, South America, on an Ariane 5 rocket on December 25, 2021.
During liftoff and its journey through the atmosphere Webb was protected by RUAG Space’s payload fairing, the top of the Ariane 5 rocket. The 17-meter-high structure was produced at the company’s site in Emmen, Switzerland. The Webb’s sunshield – as big as a tennis court – was specially engineered to fold up and fit within the 5.4-meter diameter fairing. “Our fairing was custom-made for this precious payload,” says Holger Wentscher, who heads RUAG Space’s Launchers business unit. The launch vehicle was controlled by a RUAG Space on-board computer (“brain”). Once Webb reached a certain height, the two halves of the payload fairing were successfully separated and jettisoned from the launch vehicle.
At a later stage, a RUAG Space built separation system (payload adapter) separated the Webb telescope from the rocket and placed Webb into orbit. The separation system was manufactured by RUAG Space in Linkoping, Sweden. During launch the payload adapter held the Webb telescope and connected it with the rocket.
Making sure Webb’s data reach Earth
On its way to Lagrange point 2, the Webb telescope is deploying all instruments and parts. Over 29 days it will unfold its sunshield and all other parts. One of the first things to be positioned is the RUAG Space-built communication antenna system. It enables communication to Earth and was developed and produced by RUAG Space in Gothenburg, Sweden. The system consists of two antennas, one of which is a 0.6 m diameter reflector made of carbon fiber composite that provides low weight and high precision at extreme temperatures. The second antenna is a small cup type antenna that provides a backup function in another frequency band. “All of the amazing science data from the telescope will pass through our antenna system. Just imagine, for instance, if this turns out to be the missing puzzle piece to help us better understand dark matter,” says Anders Linder, head of RUAG Space’s global Satellites business unit.
Three Mechanisms for Webb’s Scientific Instruments
Furthermore, RUAG Space was responsible for three crucial mechanisms for two of the telescope’s scientific instruments. Two high-precision mechanisms for the telescope’s “super eye” called NIRSpec were developed, built and tested by RUAG Space’s site in Vienna, Austria. This includes the mechanical support structures and special ball bearings of the two filter systems referred to as the instrument’s Filter Wheel Assembly. The 200-kilogram “super eye” – one of the two European contributions to the mission – can detect faintest infrared radiation from the most distant galaxies. Designed to observe 100 objects simultaneously, the NIRSpec will be the first spectrograph in space that has this remarkable multi-object capability.
An extremely versatile instrument, the second European instrument “MIRI” (Mid Infrared Range Instrument), will support all four of Webb’s science themes. The instrument’s Contamination Control Cover was developed by RUAG Space in Zurich, Switzerland, and delivered in 2008. It will protect MIRI against external contamination during the cooldown phase of the tests and after the launch. Additionally, this cryo-mechanism acts as an optical shutter for the instrument to allow on-board calibration and to protect the detectors against bright objects. MIRI will help to see the first generations of galaxies born after the Big Bang.
Trolley twisted Webb on Earth
During assembly and before the Webb telescope finally launched, a rotating and tilting device developed and produced by RUAG Space in Vienna, enabled engineers to work on the telescope from all sides. Depending on the requirements, the trolley moved the telescope to a vertical or horizontal position. RUAG Space has already delivered more than 80 so-called “multipurpose trolleys”, which can rotate and tilt a satellite, to customers in Europe and the United States.