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NASA's next great observatory gets a boost

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is getting a broadband upgrade with "SpaceWire" that will allow the new orbital observatory to capture images of the universe in unprecedented detail once it launches in 2013.
Image: James Webb space telescope
Looking down at the James Webb Space Telescope, the sunshield, which is stretched out underneath the mirrors (yellow), looks like a spider web. NASA
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NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is getting a broadband upgrade with "SpaceWire" that will allow the new orbital observatory to capture images of the universe in unprecedented detail once it launches in 2013.

Engineers at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, took SpaceWire, originally developed by the European Space Agency, and adapted it for easier implementation on space missions. They designed a small, low power microchip that can send SpaceWire signals at speeds over 200 megabits per second, or over ten times faster than most high definition television broadcasts.

The boost in speed makes information processing faster among the James Webb Space Telescope's (JWST) four science instruments as they "talk" to each other with the SpaceWire network. That means the infrared telescope, NASA's next great observatory, should capture larger and higher resolution images of space.

"It makes the scientists happy, and makes the observatory more efficient because it can cover a large swath of sky faster," said Pam Sullivan, manager of the JWST Integrated Science Instrument Module. She called $4.5-billion JWST "the next generation space telescope" and "successor to Hubble" that will look back 13 billion years to understand the origins of the universe.

JWST acts "like a digital camera" that turns light into digital data, according to Sullivan. The telescope will make use of 66 million detector pixels — the most on any infrared space telescope — that each collects a small bit of information. The science instruments can then process the information through SpaceWire to make a complete image, like creating an overall Impressionist painting from many tiny dots or pixels

"The trend is for telescopes to have more and more detector pixels to take bigger pictures of sky," observed Sullivan. She added that SpaceWire enables larger telescopes because "more pixels generate more data, and you have to have way to move more data around."

Future missions can use SpaceWire technology as a standard high-speed electronics package, rather than having to custom-build each time. After Goddard developed its version of SpaceWire for the JWST, the improved technology became available for other NASA missions such as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R.

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Nearly every major U.S. aerospace company, such as Northrop Grumman and Lockheed, has received Goddard's version of SpaceWire for government projects, and will soon be able to use the technology in commercial applications. NASA centers that currently use SpaceWire in technology development include the NASA Glenn Research Center, in Cleveland, OH, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA, Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA., and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

For now, the James Webb Space Telescope represents the next step for NASA – and its collaborators from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency – to take advantage of SpaceWire. Because of the exceptionally large number of detector pixels, the collecting area of the telescope exceeds the width of the rocket carrying it into space in 2013. The telescope will be folded up during launch and fully deployed to its 21-foot (6.5-meter) width once in orbit, an extra step well worth the effort for NASA managers.

"To see all the way to the edge of the universe, you need larger telescopes," said Sullivan.