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Greenbelt Connections to the Webb Space Telescope

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People around the world are excited about the Christmas Day launch of the greatest-ever space telescope – the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – but Greenbelters seemed even more excited, if their posts on Facebook are any indication. That’s because so many Greenbelters work at Greenbelt-based NASA-Goddard and some even have worked on Webb.

Webb is an infrared telescope with a 6.5-meter primary mirror and will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System. Source.

From this video and other sources I’ve learned that after its launch Christmas Day from French Guinea on the European-made rocket, it is traveling about a million miles to what’s called L2, where the sun and earth balance to create a protected spot protected by earth from the light and heat of sun, so it’ll require a minimum of propulsion to keep on station. It’ll take 29 days to get there, after which it’ll unfold its 5-layer sunshield and assemble its 6.5-meter mirror made up of 18 hexagonal mirror segments.

And this is so cool – you can Keep track of JWST on this link. It’s a “data-driven infographic that shows the status of Webb on its journey to L2 orbit. The page constantly updates as Webb travels, deploys, and cools to operating temperature.” Screen grab below.


Today’s News of Webb

Posted this morning to the Webb’s Facebook page:

Our sunshield is shining bright! 💎 Yesterday, we deployed our port and starboard sunshield mid-booms, or “arms,” which pull out the five layers of the sunshield. Webb’s sunshield has now taken on its characteristic diamond shape.”
Next up: tensioning the 5 sunshield layers! We are about halfway through our unfolding sequence, and we’ve covered about half of the distance between Earth and our destination of the second Lagrange point (L2). Note that our speed will continue to slow as Webb needs to coast uphill climbing the gravity ridge from Earth to L2.
Keep up with our daily updates: blogs.nasa.gov/webb

The Role of Goddard

Knowing that many countries and agencies contributed to Webb along its long journey to launch, I asked Goddard’s press contact Laura Betz about Goddard’s unique role.


NASA Headquarters oversees the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt manages Webb for the agency and oversees work on the mission performed by the Space Telescope Science Institute, Northrop Grumman, and other mission partners. In addition to Goddard, several NASA centers contributed to the project, including the agency’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley, and others.

Greenbelters Who Contributed


Jon Gardner in his work bio photo and shown with Transatlantic Crossing at the New Deal and the Greenbelt Farmers Market.

Asked for names of Greenbelters involved in Webb, I was sent to the bio for Jon Gardner, Deputy Senior Project Scientist for Webb. The bio tells us he’s interested in education and serves as the Chair of the Greenbelt City’s Advisory Committee on Education. It also mentions what most Greenbelters know Jon for – his family band Transatlantic Crossing. Made up of Anne (fiddle), Jon (guitar), David (flute & accordion), Elizabeth (fiddle and clarinet) and Rebecca (electric bass), they describe it as performing “high-energy fiddle tunes from both sides of the Atlantic, from Irish and Scottish jigs and reels to New England and French Canadian contra-dance music.” Shown above, performing at the New Deal Cafe and our Farmers Market.

Another Greenbelt-based musical scientist who worked on Webb is Scott Rohrbach, who I was told did “stray light analysis. He explained in an email to me that it’s

the effort to understand all of the things that can go wrong with the design of the mirrors and lenses in a telescope, as well as all of the surrounding hardware. The “lens flares” one sees in movies when the camera is looking close to the sun is one example of “stray light”. It can be used for cinematic effect, but it can also cloud the image of a far-away galaxy that is extremely dim. Other times, light can glint off of hardware in the telescope like screws, or mounting rings, or the interior wall of the barrel of a camera lens and get into the image. If we are not careful to consider all of those effects, a billion-dollar observatory like Webb can end up being less sensitive than we expect because the images it captures are clouded by these stray light problems.

The Chromatics performing “JWST Funk.” Greenbelter Scott Rohrbach is shown in the lower left.

But back to music! Scott is a member of the Chromatics, which “brings a youthful exuberance to their fun-filled, colorful songs about science, technology, life, and their intersections.” I’d heard of the Chromatics and assumed it was a normal a capella group but no! On their YouTube channel AstroCappella I found this really fun song about Webb, written by Scott himself.

I asked Scott if he’d watched the Christmas Day launch from Goddard or at home. His answer was more illuminating than just that.

While I was invited to take part in the viewing party at GSFC, I woke up early on Christmas morning in South Florida, visiting family we have not seen for three years. I was slightly anxious, but confident that the Ariane 5 and launch team would perform nominally. It has been a good 3 years since I actively worked on JWST, but the broadcast that morning brought back memories of testing the first subset of cameras at GSFC in 2013 (and enduring the coincident government shutdown), testing the full suite twice in 2016-2017 (and enduring many graveyard shifts), watching the full mirror being assembled and attached to the camera suite, and following the whole thing down to Johnson Space Center in Houston where the combination of the telescope and camera suite was tested in the same giant space simulator chamber that the Apollo capsules were tested in the late 1960’s.


It was there that hurricane Harvey struck, stranding the test team that was there in the control room and adjacent office space for two weeks or so. I came in on one of the first flights after the hurricane to Dallas and drove a car down to the Houston to relieve that crew and helped do the final tests that I would be a part of.


The intervening years have put some distance between me and the program, but the launch certainly brought it all flooding back. It was an honor and a privilege to be a part of such a great endeavor, though I hope that I do not hear from the team doing the commissioning of the Observatory because people only contact me when something looks wrong!

Another Greenbelter, Peter Teuben, chatted excitedly with me about Webb and sent me the links above, but demurred when I asked about his role:

I was only involved in development of the software for one of the instruments because they were trying a technique not familiar in infrared, where we had been doing that in radio for decades. It was actually a Nobel prize winning technique.

Something to be HAPPY About

This morning’s Washington Post editorial page heralds Webb as a fitting end to 2021 (in a field of “good riddance” sentiments we all share) and added that “the technological marvel now rocketing toward deep space can gaze billions of years back in time upon the earliest stars and galaxies. For 2021, the capstone seems especially apt.”

Thanks to my Greenbelt connections, I’ve become a Webb follower myself, thrilled to have something so positive the world can share in 2022.

Congratulations to everyone, especially NASA Goddard and Greenbelt’s very own Webb contributors.
Photo of Chromatics singing from this video.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

  1. Lissa Bell
    | Reply

    What a delightful article. Thank you.

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