‘Beyond the Dark Ages’: USU Space Dynamics Laboratory provides pivotal parts for the Webb Telescope

Last week, NASA revealed four new images taken by the James Webb Telescope. This image shows the Carina Nebula. Without the critical parts designed by the Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, NASA’s James Webb Telescope might not have been able to capture the amazing images it has obtained so far. (NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI)

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LOGAN – While standing within the confines of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Glen Hansen noticed a poster on the wall that piqued his interest.

The poster said, “Looking beyond the dark ages.”

“It’s great to see that the telescope is actually doing this. It has looked farther than we’ve been able to see before, not just in space but in time, when we look back at the very beginnings of the universe,” said Hansen, chief engineer at the lab. Space Dynamics at Utah State University.

Hansen wasn’t there as a spectator that day either. He and his lab team are actively involved in creating technology for the now famous James Webb Space Telescope.

“Being a part of that makes you feel really good,” Hansen said.

Hansen said the Space Dynamics Laboratory was developing technology for the NASA SABER mission when they were selected to develop similar technology to support the Webb telescope “based on our legacy of being able to provide these types of tapes.”

Without the work of the Space Dynamics lab, the Webb telescope might not have been able to capture the amazing images it has so far.

The laboratory’s contribution to the telescope was the development of a thermal control system – in particular, heat belts that “transmit heat away from both instruments to the radiators on the telescope” and support structures for the tapes.

Hansen explained that the instruments on the telescope tolerate extreme cold while in space, down to 4 K, or -452 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The reason they need to be that cold is because you’re looking at some very cold objects in deep space, so if your detectors are much warmer than the object you’re trying to see, you won’t see that,” Hansen said.

He said it’s like trying to watch the stars in downtown Salt Lake City rather than doing it high up in the Wasatch Mountains, or deep in the desert in southern Utah.

“If you move away from the city … you can see countless stars there, which is kind of the case with detectors,” Hansen said. “If it’s not cooler than the things you’re trying to see…it’s engulfed in infrared heat radiated by the surrounding environment.”

So, the thermal control system and heat tapes designed by the Space Dynamics lab are essentially what keep the detectors cool, moving the heat generated by the detectors into the radiator to allow a peek into deep space.

Without the thermal control system, Hansen said, the telescope would not be able to see what it was trying to detect.

For Hansen and the rest of the crew at Space Dynamics Lab, who have spent the greater part of the past five years working on the technology, seeing the images returned from the telescope is a very interesting feeling.

“To finally see it get out there and then see the pictures back in again, that’s very satisfying,” Hansen said. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment.”


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Logan Stefanis is a reporter at KSL.com, covering Southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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