Daily Stock Market News

Work by Ball Aerospace, other Boulder County companies play key role in James Webb Space


The recent launch of the James Webb Space Telescope garnered worldwide attention for its ambitious goals and extraordinary technological challenges. The Christmas Day take-off was the most high-profile step in a 20-year journey by scientists and engineers from Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder to build a next-generation telescope able to expand humanity’s understanding of the universe.

The Webb project’s ambitious scientific goals include searching for the first light after the Big Bang, determining how galaxies evolved, observing the birth of stars and planets, and investigating the potential for life on other planets.

Ball Aerospace designed and manufactured the entire optics system for the Webb telescope, which is the largest telescope ever deployed in space. Webb is intended to detect objects up to 400 times fainter than what can be observed by current ground- and space-based telescopes.

Ball Aerospace technicians examine the James Webb Space Telescope segmented mirrors prior to testing at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Ball is just one of several Boulder County-area companies that helped bring the telescope into being. (Ball Aerospace / Courtesy photo)

“It’s hard to overestimate the impact (of Webb),” said Makenzie Lystrup, vice president and general manager of civil space at Ball Aerospace. “I think it’s going to change our understanding of the evolution of our universe and our place in it and help us start to answer questions like are we alone in terms of life out in the universe.”

Meredith MacGregor, assistant professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, agreed that Webb’s potential impact is exciting for scientists. She said more than 4,000 planets have been identified orbiting other stars, and Webb’s enhanced capabilities will enable scientists to begin investigating the composition of those planets’ atmospheres, which will identify other worlds that could potentially sustain life.

MacGregor said Webb will also enable scientists to look further back in time than was possible with previous telescopes. “We’re going to be able to get a really good look at the early history, the first galaxies that were forming in our universe billions of years ago,” she said.

Creating revolutionary technology

Achieving such ambitious scientific goals requires a dramatic improvement in telescope performance. Ball had worked on all four of NASA’s “Great Observatories,” a series of large space-based telescopes launched between 1990 and 2003. The company’s extensive experience and expertise with designing and building space hardware was a major factor in winning the contract for Webb’s entire optics system.

The Webb telescope is much larger than its predecessors, which is a major factor in its huge potential impact.

“Telescopes are essentially like a giant light bucket,” CU’s MacGregor said. “You’re trying to collect as much light as possible, and so you always want a telescope to be bigger because then you can see farther away and fainter things.”

Ball Aerospace technicians work on the James Webb Space Telescope segmented mirrors. (Ball Aerospace / Courtesy photo)

The major component of space-based telescopes is a primary mirror that captures the infrared light from galaxies, stars and planets too far away to be seen with a traditional telescope. The final design for Webb has a 269-square-foot primary mirror, almost three times the size of the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990. Because infrared telescopes performing this kind of science need to be super cold to be effective, Webb’s primary mirror and other elements of the telescope are protected from the Sun’s heat by a sunshield the size of a tennis court.

One of the project’s major challenges was determining how to fit such a large telescope into a relatively small rocket. (The diameter of the rocket used to actually take the Webb telescope into space was only 18 feet.) Ball’s design team worked tirelessly to create an architecture that would allow the telescope’s components to be folded to fit into the rocket and then unfurled to full size once the telescope was in orbit.

The final design for the mirror incorporates 18 distinct segments about 4.3 feet in diameter that are designed to work together as one mirror. Each 46-pound mirror segment has seven tiny mechanical motors that move and tilt the individual segments into an alignment that provides peak performance. The motors had to be designed to operate in the cold of deep space with temperatures from minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

“The design of the actuators of the mirrors was a big challenge,” said Erin Wolf, Ball Aerospace’s program manager for Webb.

Worldwide participation

The Webb project required contributions from “best-of-the-best” experts in a broad array of specialties. Lystrup said some 300 companies and universities from around the world were involved in the project at different points. Ball has been involved with the Webb program for more than 20 years, with about 1,500 employees from across Colorado working on the project at different times.

While aerospace organizations often compete for important projects, Lystrup said teamwork was paramount for the companies and universities that were part of the Webb team. She said the individuals and organizations working on Webb were passionate about space science and shared a belief in the importance of the mission.

“It takes everyone coming together with their complementary skills and capabilities to have something like this come to fruition,” she said.

Lafayette-based Composite Technology Development Inc. was one of several Colorado companies on the Webb team. CTD tested multiple sections of the Webb telescope to ensure that particular components met the specifications required by the rigors of launch and an extended trip in space. CTD tested the bond joints and components of the framework that holds all the scientific instruments behind Webb’s primary mirror, as well as struts that hold the secondary mirror. Testing was done over five years in temperatures from minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit to minus 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Mark Haynes, senior engineer in charge of testing, said CTD’s feedback ended up decreasing the mass of some carbon-fiber tubes, thereby reducing the weight of the telescope, a very important side benefit of the company’s methodical work.

Technician Jerome Quintana works on a battery component on Wednesday at Enersys, a Longmont company that provided batteries for the James Webb Space Telescope. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

EnerSys-ABSL Space Products Inc. of Longmont provided next-generation lithium-ion batteries for the Webb telescope. The challenge for their engineers was designing and manufacturing a rechargeable battery that could withstand both the extreme vibrations of launch and the intense cold of deep space. Their team also had to meet NASA specifications that anticipate a range of other potential issues that could arise during Webb’s extended mission. The Li-ion battery is recharged by Webb’s solar panels and provides supplemental power to the satellite when the solar panels are not generating enough current to sustain operations.  Optimal battery performance is vital because ongoing power problems could limit the operations and life of the Webb telescope, said Dave Lucero, general manager for U.S. Space at EnerSys.

The involvement of so many organizations over such an extended timeline created real management challenges. The design of the telescope and its technical requirements evolved over time in response to technology improvements. Ball and the other companies, universities and government agencies involved in the project had to respond to the impacts of that ongoing progress.

“With technology changing and that kind of thing, the understanding and expectations of the design and the requirements for the design also can evolve,” Wolf said. “What the initial idea and intent was in this document or this requirement might evolve over time, so we had to continually communicate with the customer and the vendors. Communication and relationships are a big part of sustaining this kind of long-term program.”

When a project takes decades to complete, the impact of employee turnover on productivity and deadlines is a major potential issue.

“There’s a lot of (personnel) challenges, just the natural evolution of people in their careers, people moving on,” Wolf said. “Training and mentorship are just kind of built in naturally to this kind of long program. They have to be. That’s something that Ball does at the grassroots. We have a very strong mentor culture at Ball.”

Overcoming COVID and natural disasters

Like the rest of the world, Ball and the other organizations involved in developing the Webb Space Telescope had to contend with the impact of the pandemic. Lystrup said pandemic safety restrictions eliminated much of the face-to-face communication that normally happens during space-science projects, but the teams at Ball and other project partners quickly adapted to virtual meetings that kept the lines of communication open and the project moving forward.

Multiple research facilities across the U.S. were involved in development of the Webb telescope, with teams from Ball traveling to other facilities for testing and other project-related work. Wolf said the Ball team ended up encountering a slew of natural disasters, from the 2013 flood in Boulder County to earthquakes in Los Angeles and a tornado at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. Hurricane Harvey dumped 6 feet of rain in one day on the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston while a Ball team was there.

None of those events slowed down the project, Wolf said.

“Webb is a tough telescope,” she joked.

Launch-day excitement

Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard lifts up from the launchpad, at the Europes Spaceport, the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana, on Dec. 25. (Photo by Jody Amiet / AFP via Getty Images)

The launch of the rocket carrying the Webb telescope garnered media attention around the world. Ball employees and other members of the Webb team watched takeoff from a multitude of locations. Lystrup was at the launch site in French Guiana.

“It’s very emotional because it is the culmination of so many people’s efforts,” she said. “It was both thrilling and relieving to see it go off. And that’s just the start of the journey.”

Wolf found the launch “almost surreal” as she watched on a monitor at the Space Telescope Science Institute on the campus of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“It was neat to watch how excited everyone was down at the launch site, cheering and slapping backs and very excited, but in the mission ops (operations) center we were more subdued because it’s our turn after the launch,” she said. “We all gave a quick clap and then sat back down at our screens and started monitoring telemetry and getting ready for the next steps.”



Read More: Work by Ball Aerospace, other Boulder County companies play key role in James Webb Space

You might also like
A note to our visitors

This website has updated its privacy policy in compliance with changes to European Union data protection law, for all members globally. We’ve also updated our Privacy Policy to give you more information about your rights and responsibilities with respect to your privacy and personal information. Please read this to review the updates about which cookies we use and what information we collect on our site. By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to our updated privacy policy.