‘Beyond the dark ages’: USU’s Space Dynamics Lab supplies pivotal parts to Webb Telescope

NASA revealed four new images last week taken by the James Webb Telescope. This image shows the Carina Nebula. Without crucial parts engineered by Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Lab, NASA’s James Webb Telescope may never have been able to capture the stunning images that it has so far. (NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI)

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LOGAN — Standing within the confines of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Glen Hansen noticed a poster on the wall that intrigued him.

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

“It’s just great to see that the telescope is actually doing that. It’s looked well beyond where we’ve been able to see before, not only in space but in time, as we look back at the early beginnings of the universe,” said Hansen, chief engineer with Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory.

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

“To be a part of that, it makes you feel really good,” Hansen said.

Hansen said that the Space Dynamics Lab was working on developing technology for NASA’s SABER mission when they were selected to develop similar technology to support the Webb telescope “based on our heritage with being able to provide these types of straps.”

Without the work done by the Space Dynamics Lab, the Webb telescope may never have been able to capture the stunning images that it has so far.

The lab’s contribution to the telescope was to develop the thermal control system — in particular, heat straps that “conduct the heat away from each of the instruments out to the radiators on the telescope” and support structures for the straps.

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

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

He said it’s like trying to stargaze in downtown Salt Lake City as opposed to doing so somewhere high up in the Wasatch Mountains, or deep within a desert in southern Utah.

“If you move out away from the city … you can see a whole myriad of stars out there, and that’s kind of the way it is with the detectors,” Hansen said. “If they’re not colder than the objects they’re trying to see … they get swamped by that infrared heat that the surroundings are radiating.”

So, the thermal control system and the heat straps engineered by the Space Dynamics Lab are essentially what keep the detectors cold, moving the heat that the detectors generate to the radiator to allow a peek into deep space.

Without the thermal control system, the telescope “would never be able to see what they’re trying to detect,” Hansen said.

For Hansen and the rest of the crew at the Space Dynamics Lab, who spent the better part of the last five years working on the technology, seeing the images that come back from the telescope is an extremely gratifying feeling.

“To finally see that it gets out there and then see the images come back, it’s very fulfilling,” Hansen said. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment.”


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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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