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The James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA plans to launch in 2017, will feature hexagonal beryllium mirrors machined in Cullman and five sun shields built under the direction of a Decatur native in Huntsville. Scientists hope the infrared telescope will be able to see images dating back to the origin of the universe.
NASA illustration
The James Webb Space Telescope, which NASA plans to launch in 2017, will feature hexagonal beryllium mirrors machined in Cullman and five sun shields built under the direction of a Decatur native in Huntsville. Scientists hope the infrared telescope will be able to see images dating back to the origin of the universe.

Building a cool telescope
Device, meant to operate at -370 degrees in space, could let researchers glimpse big bang

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

Jim Moore was 5 when test runs of the first stage of a Saturn rocket, at Marshall Space Flight Center, rattled the windows of his Southeast Decatur home.

That childhood rumble still resonates, but he’s grown up now. He directs a critical component of a space telescope that, if expectations are met, will dwarf the accomplishments of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Moore, a Decatur High graduate, is director of the aerospace technologies directorate, and a division vice president, of SRS Technologies in Huntsville. SRS employs 120 in Huntsville.

The company is building sunshields for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2017.

North Alabama

Moore is not the only North Alabamian playing a major role in developing the telescope. Cullman native Jeff Calvert is director of the JWST program at Cullman’s Axsys Technologies plant, which is machining the beryllium mirrors that are the guts of the infrared telescope.

Seeking ‘first light’

The JWST will be seeking “first light,” light originating as far back as the “big bang” that scientists theorize created the universe as we know it. Moore explained that visible light — such as that measured by Hubble — flattens out over millions of light years. As its frequency flattens, it disappears from the visual spectrum. It remains in the infrared spectrum, however. Images invisible to Hubble will be visible to JWST.

JWST will provide a glimpse into the history of the universe, of galactic images that have taken millions of light-years to arrive at our solar system.

SRS Technologies’ role in creating the sunshields is indispensable to the JWST project. Its job is to keep the telescope at a temperature of about negative 370 degrees Fahrenheit.

“That telescope has got to be very, very cold,” Moore said.

Less is better

Imagine you are looking at the stars from your backyard. The more streetlights there are in the area, the fewer stars you can see. Block that background light and more stars appear.

The same holds true when looking at infrared energy emitted from distant objects. The telescope absorbs heat from the sun and the moon, and that heat blocks its ability to see dim objects.

By decreasing the temperature of the telescope, Moore’s team will increase its ability to detect images projecting minimal infrared light. Minimal light, in galactic terms, often means light that has traveled further to get here. So a cold telescope peers into the universe’s more distant history.

Axsys is machining plates of beryllium into hexagonal mirrors that are lightweight enough to be launched into solar orbit, but precise enough to see the infrared text detailing the origins of a universe.

The plates weigh about 475 pounds when they arrive in Cullman. By the time they leave — after an elaborate machining process that includes honeycombing the non-reflective surfaces — they are down to 46 pounds.

Calvert has supervised the production of 18 of the 5-foot mirrors, which will fold together to fit in the faring when launched into orbit. The company is finishing three spares.

Axsys also built a secondary mirror that, once in orbit, will be held about 20 feet from the primary mirrors. It also built mounting structures that will secure the mirrors to the satellite.

Early designs

Early designs of JWST contemplated the possibility of using glass mirrors, Calvert said, but beryllium performed better at low temperatures. It also weighs less than glass, all-important in the launch phase.

Axsys came to Cullman in 1968 when its founder, from Michigan, was headed to Florida for a vacation. He stopped to visit a former employee who had retired to his hometown of Cullman.

“He (the founder) loved it. The location was perfect, between Birmingham and Huntsville. He knew the labor force was energetic,” Calvert said, “so he decided to move a location here.”

Calvert, a Cullman native, has been with Axsys for 21 years. He received his machinist training at Wallace State.

The Cullman plant employs 217, about 25 of whom have been involved in the JWST project.

“We’ve been blessed to be able to work on this,” Calvert said. “I keep telling the guys, ‘We’re making history. These are the things your kids and grandkids will be reading about in the history books.’ We’re so proud to be part of it.”


Calvert and his team thrive on the challenge.

“The more difficult it is, the more these guys are determined to give it their best,” Calvert said. “If an engineer can dream it up, we can make it happen.”

The use of infrared instead of visual light gives the JWST major advantages over the Hubble.

As light travels to us from distant objects, it “stretches out.” The energy that reaches us from the most distant objects shifts to the red spectrum, traveling in longer wavelengths not visible to the eye.

“We’ll literally be looking at the universe in a whole different light,” Moore said.

Scientists believe that, by detecting infrared light, the JWST will see back to a time just after the Big Bang, when planets and stars were beginning to cool.

JWST’s distance from the Earth — about 1 million miles — will make it unserviceable. If it breaks, it stays broken. That places an enormous burden on SRS and Axsys, because their parts must work without human assistance.

SRS is building five sunshields, each about the size of a tennis court, that will be stacked below the telescope.

The layers — which combined weigh only 150 pounds — are constructed of a plastic-like material that will fold compactly into the faring of the launch vehicle, along with the telescope. Each layer is about the thickness of a human hair. Once at the proper orbit, the layers will deploy.

Like Calvert, Moore is an enthusiastic fan of North Alabama.

“For me personally the space program was a big part of growing up in Decatur,” Moore said. “North Alabama is a Mecca for the aerospace industry. I wanted to work in the space industry, and I definitely wanted to return to North Alabama.”

He does not regret the decision.

“It’s an honor to me to be associated with this program. This is the premier science instrument of our decade,” Moore said of JWST. “This is equivalent to, if not greater, than the Hubble telescope program was.”

Moore hopes that JWST inspires children in Decatur just as the Saturn rocket program inspired him in the 1960s.

“Programs like James Webb are going to go a long ways toward getting young people in the area interested in aerospace programs,” Moore said.

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