Thanks to the Magna operations of aerospace contractor Alliant Techsystems Inc. scientists soon will peer into the deepest regions of space and unlock more secrets to the cosmos.
Alliant (ATK) was recognized Monday by NASA and contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems for its contribution to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Telescope that will launch into space in 2018 and take pictures of galaxies born more than 13 billion years ago.
The James Webb Space Telescope
What is it? » An $8 billion telescope that will take pictures of the oldest galaxies to help scientists understand the formation of the universe.
When it launches » End of 2018. The first pictures will be taken in 2019.
Where is it going » Into space about 1 million miles from Earth, which will take a couple of months to reach its final destination and be fully deployed.
How it works » The telescope will take pictures of galaxies more than 13 billion years old by capturing the infrared light that remains of their images.
Who built it » NASA is leading the project. About 20 main contractors are involved, including the Magna operations of Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK), which built the platform on which the optical mirrors sit. More than 100 companies worldwide are involved in the project.
Who is it named after » James E. Webb, the second administrator of NASA, who oversaw the manned Mercury and Gemini space flight missions.
"It’s going to be mindblowing," NASA’s Lee Feinberg said, smiling.
The telescope’s 21½-foot diameter mirror will be made up of 18 smaller hexagonal mirrors arranged in a concave pattern with the telescope lens in the middle. ATK constructed the 2,000-pound platform that holds the mirrors.
The platform, also called the "backplane," is made of a special composite of graphite and resin that ATK engineers refer to by its nickname "pre-preg."
The material will be able to withstand temperatures of 350 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. That’s important because in order to capture the infrared light reflected by the galaxies, the telescope must be able to withstand the frigid temperatures of deep space.
In order to construct the frame, "you’re talking about state-of-the-art science," said Bob Hellekson, ATK’s program manager for the JWST programs. "It’s world-class in engineering, science and computer modeling, along with fabrication."
But ATK’s $150 million contract to build the platform is not the only Utah connection to the telescope, which will launch from the French Guiana for proper trajectory. The metal beryllium, which was used in the construction of the optical mirrors, was mined from a Materion Corp. mine in Delta. And Utah State University is involved with research to determine how different materials react to radiation in space that will help engineers in the construction of the telescope.
"It’s really a state contribution," Feinberg said about Utah’s involvement.
ATK is one of about 20 main contractors working on the $8 billion telescope, which took form in the conceptual stage in 1998 before construction started more than five years ago. All told, there are more than a hundred companies around the world involved with the project, Feinberg said.
The telescope will launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket and take a couple of months to travel about a million miles from Earth (more than four times the distance to the moon) before for its deployment. During its trip, the telescope will unfold its mirrors, as well as heat panels, to shield it from the sun. There also will be two solar panels that will collect the sun’s rays to help generate the power to operate the telescope.
In order for the telescope to successfully take the pictures of galaxies from infrared light — which can take anywhere from seconds to days — ATK’s platform has to remain stable to within 1/1000th of the width of a human hair. It also has to be able to withstand extreme temperatures of 185 degrees Fahrenheit on the sunny side and minus 385 degrees on the dark side that’s taking the picture.
"They [ATK engineers] have the engineering talent to come up with the materials for these very cold temperatures," said Scott Willoughby, program manger for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, which is based in Redondo Beach, Calif. (the defense giant also has operations in Utah).
With the telescope, scientists will be able to see how galaxies existed just 200 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical early development of the universe. They hope to see take the first pictures in early 2019.
"To look back in time is to look further into the distance," Willoughby said. "We’ll basically understand how our universe was formed. If you get that, you can understand yourself more."
ATK, which is based in Minnesota, is made up of three separate areas — its aerospace division, weapons division for the U.S. military and a sporting division that produces ammunition and shooting accessories for sports shooting and law enforcement.
Two of the company’s three operating groups call Utah home. ATK Aerospace Systems, headquartered in Magna with operations in Promontory, produces solid-fuel rocket propulsion systems and is also a supplier of military and commercial aircraft structures. ATK Armament Systems, which is based in Clearfield and employs several dozen Utahns, is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of military ammunition. Almost all its operations, though, are out of state.
The company acquired Hercules Aerospace Co. in 1995 then Morton Thiokol in 2001. All told, ATK has had a 35-year history with NASA.
Its shares closed Monday at $46.72 in trading, down $1.89.
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