‘Beyond the Dark Ages’: USU’s Space Dynamics Lab Provides Key Parts to Webb Telescope

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

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LOGAN – Standing in the grounds of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Glen Hansen noticed a poster on the wall that intrigued him.

The poster read, “Looking Beyond the Dark Ages.”

“It’s just great to see that the telescope is actually doing this. It’s looked far beyond what we’ve seen before, not just in space but in time, as we watch the beginnings of universe,” said Hansen, chief engineer of 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 are actively involved in creating the 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 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 of 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 it has so far.

The lab’s contribution to the telescope has been to develop the thermal control system – specifically, heated straps that “exhaust heat from each of the instruments to the telescope’s radiators” and support structures for the straps.

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

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

He said it was like trying to stargaze in downtown Salt Lake City rather than somewhere high in the Wasatch Mountains or deep in a desert in southern Utah.

“If you move away from the city…you can see a whole myriad of stars there, and it’s kind of like that with detectors,” Hansen said. “If they’re not colder than the objects they’re trying to see…they’re overwhelmed by this infrared heat that the environment radiates.”

So the thermal control system and thermal straps designed by the Space Dynamics Lab are essentially what keep the detectors cool, moving the heat the detectors generate to the heatsink to allow deep space insight.

Without the thermal control system, the telescope “could never see what it’s trying to detect,” Hansen said.

For Hansen and the rest of the Space Dynamics Lab team, who have spent the better part of the past five years working on the technology, seeing the images coming back from the telescope is a hugely rewarding feeling.

“To finally see it come out and then see the footage come back, it’s very gratifying,” Hansen said. “It’s a great sense of accomplishment.”


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

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