Albert McKeon

Apr 15th 2019

Spin-Off Technologies From Webb Telescope Are Helping Other Ventures


The James Webb Space Telescope hasn’t even launched yet, but it is already providing valuable scientific and economic benefits here on Earth.

With its mission of offering unprecedented perspectives of our solar system and distant galaxies, the telescope is changing this world before it even leaves the ground. That’s due in part to several inventions that were specifically developed for Webb and that have become valuable spin-off technologies in their own right.

From wavefront sensing technology that could improve human eyesight to near-infrared sensors that enhance ground-based astronomical observations, these advancements illustrate how an atypical invention can have a purpose greater than initially believed.

The Challenges of Exploration Create Useful Technologies

The James Webb Space Telescope — also known as the Webb telescope — could possibly explore alongside its predecessor, Hubble Space Telescope, into the next decade. NASA hopes Webb will discover the universe’s first galaxies and potentially unveil a connection between the Big Bang and our galaxy. Scientists also hope the telescope can study gases about 39.6 light-years away from our sun to determine if other life forms exist beyond our world.

Because of the inherent challenges and demands of space travel, as well as the complexities of observing distant stars and planetary systems primarily through dusty clouds, Webb is an intricate piece of machinery. The telescope will observe elements mostly in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, using sensitivity cameras and a mirror measuring 21.3 feet in diameter. Webb will “look back in time” by using infrared light to sort through dust clouds in order to show us the first starts and planetary systems that formed just after the Big Bang.

It will also include a sunshield the size of a full-length tennis court. Together, the mirrors and spacecraft element are so large that they will have to fold in order to fit inside the nose of an Ariane 5 rocket during launch and deploy once in space.

For Webb to perform its observations and thrive in the vastness of space, NASA and its contractors developed several advanced technologies that have further impacts to tasks, even outside of space exploration. With information provided by NASA, here are five of those multifaceted inventions:

Human Sight Benefits From Space Invention

Improvements in wavefront technology let NASA accurately measure Webb’s mirrors during manufacturing. Those advancements have since transferred to medicine, where the technology is measuring human eyes, diagnosing ocular diseases and potentially improving eye surgery. For example, doctors can now see more detailed information about the shape of an eye in seconds, rather than in hours.

Webb Technology Helped Hubble Camera Repair

Developed for Webb, a technology known as application-specific integrated units (ASICs) ended up helping Hubble. ASICs are integrated circuits that enable an entire circuit board’s worth of electronics to be condensed into a tiny package. ASICs are programmable, which allowed NASA to fix Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys, technology that has produced remarkable views of the universe.

Sensors Are Guiding the Work of Other Missions

Infrared sensors developed for Webb’s instruments are now also the select technology for astronomical observations in space and on Earth. These sensors record the weak light from galaxies, stars and planets. Several NASA missions have relied on an early version of Webb’s HAWAII-2RG 4 Megapixel array. Hubble, Deep and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, for example, have all benefited from these sensors. Meanwhile, the HAWAII-2RG is in use at dozens of ground-based observatories around the world.

A “Cold” Invention Is a “Hot” Technology

Rocket science is famously known as being exactingly difficult, but sometimes it’s even harder than that. Webb engineers had a tough time finding a way to test the telescope’s mirrors and composite structures at the cold temperatures found in space. It’s not easy to generate -450 degrees Fahrenheit.

But a technology company in Arizona found a way by designing several types of high-speed test devices that use pulsed lasers to “freeze out” the effects of vibration. That invention led to the creation of other applications for astronomy, aerospace and medicine.

Steadying the Telescope in the Coldness of Space

The backplane of Webb supports the mirrors of the telescope. It will carry not only the primary mirror and telescope optics but also the entire module of scientific instruments, more than two tons of hardware. Northrop Grumman designed advanced graphite composite materials that are connected to titanium and invar fittings and interfaces, which will steady the backplane at 1/10,000 the diameter of a human hair while in temperatures colder than -400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Northrop Grumman’s contribution will not only help the Webb telescope study the stars and galaxies but, like the other spin-off technologies designed for the mission, its product can also have real value on other space missions and endeavors on Earth.