STTARS Helps Light Up The Texan Sky

The world’s largest telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, is on its way to being built. However, with technology of this size and magnitude, even its different parts are built separately and have to be tested separately. Just recently, its “Pathfinder Backplane”, a test model of an essential piece in the telescope, had to be tested in Houston. To solve the problem of the transfer of this piece, the Space Telescope Transporter for Air Road and Sea (STTARS) was created.

The James Webb Space Telescope (sometimes called JWST or Webb) will be NASA’s premier observatory, featuring a large infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror. This is a huge project, a result of the collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, with development being led by the Goddard Space Flight Center, and industrial partner Northrop Grumman, and post-launch operator the Space Telescope Science Institute.

It was formerly known as the “Next Generation Space Telescope”, but was renamed the James Webb Space Telescope in 2002 after one of NASA’s former administrators, James Webb.

The Pathfinder Backplane, which is an important component of Webb, had to be subjected to cryogenic or low temperature tests, considering that the telescope will be operating 1 million miles out in space and will be subjected to below-freezing temperatures. For this to be tested, the piece had to be flown from the Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Maryland to the biggest cryogenic test space available, which is in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This is also the same chamber that was used for the cryogenic testing of the Apollo spacecraft components.

To ensure that the part was moved securely along this distance, STTARS, a massive white shipping container, was used.

The cross-state move started with the 3,000-pound pathfinder being lifted by crane into the STTARS, which had to descend into the same room as the pathfinder in Goddard on air pads. Then, STTARS had to be transported to the Joint Base Andrews by a semi-truck engine at a rate of 5mph for 7 hours.

STTARS was then loaded into a C-5 Charlie military plane, usually used for tank transport. Even with this massive plane, STTARS barely got into the space because of its own massive size. However, once loaded, it then flew more than 1,000 miles to Ellington Airport and was trucked to Johnson Space Center.

Mechanical integration engineer, Adam Carpenter, explained that the biggest challenge in the transportation of these pieces is the size. He also said that this is a test of sorts for the transport of pieces to be tested since there are still several pieces of the huge Webb telescope that will also be subjected to cryogenic testing. In addition, he mentioned that the results of this move will make the transport of the next pieces easier to plan and something that they will be even more prepared for. In the meantime, teams involved are working very hard despite the many firsts that they are encountering and learning about.

The Webb telescope, which will be the next best thing after the Hubble, is set to be launched in October of 2018 from French Guiana in South America.