In a significant step toward a new era in astronomy, NASA picked the company yesterday that will build the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope.
TRW of Redondo Beach, Calif., won the $825 million contract to design and build the new space observatory, dubbed the James Webb Space Telescope after a former NASA chief. The telescope, expected to launch in 2010, was formerly known as the Next Generation Space Telescope.
The Webb Space Telescope will search for cosmic clues to how the first stars and galaxies formed, events which are thought to have occurred only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang.
"It should be revolutionary for cosmology," said Massimo Stiavelli, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute and member of the new spacecraft's science team.
The selection of the contractor was closely watched by astronomers and administrators at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, who will be in charge of the day-to-day and scientific operations of the observatory.
"We can't wait to get going," said Peter Stockman, head of the project at the institute, which also manages the 12-year-old Hubble.
The new telescope will be capable of probing deeper into the universe's past than ever before.
According to TRW, it will have six times the light-gathering capabilities of Hubble and be able to see objects one-four-hundredth as bright as are visible from ground-based telescopes.
These capabilities come partly from its unusual design and partly from its proposed location: Instead of being parked in a relatively low orbit, as is the case with Hubble, the new space telescope will rocket to a spot 940,000 miles from Earth.
Building the spacecraft will be a formidable challenge for TRW. The telescope's instruments will measure infrared, or heat, radiation from the depths of space. So, it is imperative that the telescope itself remain cool, scientists say, or the delicate infrared measurements could be thrown off.
Being stationed far from the sun and Earth will help. But the TRW design also calls for a tennis court-size solar shield to blanket one side of the craft and help keep it chilled to minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit.
Another unique feature of the new telescope is its primary light-collecting mirror, which will be at least 20 feet in diameter - more than twice the size of Hubble's mirror.
To fit so large an object inside the confines of a rocket, TRW engineers are designing the mirror to fold.
"It looks like a leaf table," said Stockman.
Once the new telescope is in place, mission controllers will command the mirror's two folded "leafs" to snap into position.
The new space observatory was named for James E. Webb, who led the space agency as administrator during the Apollo era of the 1960s. Webb died in 1992 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
Sean O'Keefe, NASA's current administrator, said the new observatory would be a fitting memorial to Webb's legacy.
"He took our nation on its first voyages of exploration, turning our imagination into reality."