Flying an interstellar telescope

Raytheon Intelligence & Space controls will help James Webb Telescope unveil universe

The James Webb Space Telescope, launched in December 2021, will provide new insight into some of the biggest secrets of the universe. Operated by ground controls from Raytheon Intelligence & Space, the telescope will peer at the first stars and galaxies in the universe, capturing infrared light that has been traveling for billions of years. And it will provide new views of our celestial neighbors.

“Webb will let us look further into space and time to probe the primeval universe,” said Walt Burns, RI&S program manager for the flight operations system. “And it will be controlled with RI&S hardware and software."

Webb is a large, international project led by NASA, with many partners and companies providing different components. RI&S installed the Webb's ground control system at Space Telescope Science Institute or STScI, in Baltimore. The ground control system is primarily responsible for maintaining the health and safety of the observatory and supports command and control of the observatory as well.

Ground controls for satellites or spacecraft are usually built after development is well under way, but legacy Raytheon started early in the process. That allowed integration of components of the observatory to start talking to the ground system software, to reduce integration time and minimize flight risk for the 2021 flight.

“It didn’t make sense to use two different systems during integration and testing,” said Rusty Whitman, systems engineering manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “Raytheon has a long history on the project. We are making good use of everything done in integration and testing and developing lots of procedures.”

James Webb Telescope rocket launch

Arianespace's Ariane 5 rocket launches with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope onboard, Dec. 25, 2021, from Europe’s Spaceport at the Guiana Space Centre in Kourou, French Guiana. The James Webb Space Telescope is a large infrared telescope with a 21.3 foot primary mirror. The observatory will study every phase of cosmic history—from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe. (Photo by NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The same RI&S-developed software that is now flying the telescope was used to “fly” the rigorous testing being performed ahead of the launch. The James Webb Space Telescope launched on Dec. 25, 2021, on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, South America.

“No one has ever done anything like JWST,” said Whitman. “Webb is a very large spacecraft, and it’s a very large job to operate it.”

The telescope collects observations in infrared and transmits that data back to Earth. “The observatory is smart,” said Burns. “We uploaded an observation plan, and Webb has the onboard computer autonomy to pinpoint targets and make the actual observations.”

In addition to maintaining the health and safety of the observatory, Raytheon software also receives the observation data and transfers information to the system that is accessible to astronomers and other scientists. RI&S systems receive the data from Webb and transfer it to the Data Management System operated by STScI. The RI&S-built software establishes contacts twice per day with the Deep Space Network operated by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab or JPL. Each contact processes about 28 GB of downlinked data.

Commissioning of the observatory will complete in the summer or fall 2022 with the first observation data arriving shortly after.

“The data is expected to yield extraordinary results,” Burns said, that will “revolutionize our understanding of the universe.”

James Webb Telescope rocket mounting

Technicians secure NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope on top of the Ariane 5 rocket, Dec. 22, 2021, that launched it into space from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on Dec. 25, 2021. (NASA photo)