How Does The James Webb Telescope Phone Home?

When it comes to an engineering marvel like the James Webb Space Telescope, the technology involved is so specialized that there’s precious little the average person can truly relate to. We’re talking about an infrared observatory that cost $10 billion to build and operates at a temperature of 50 K (−223 °C; −370 °F), 1.5 million kilometers (930,000 mi) from Earth — you wouldn’t exactly expect it to share any parts with your run-of-the-mill laptop.

But it would be a lot easier for the public to understand if it did. So it’s really no surprise that this week we saw several tech sites running headlines about the “tiny solid state drive” inside the James Webb Space Telescope. They marveled at the observatory’s ability to deliver such incredible images with only 68 gigabytes of onboard storage, a figure below what you’d expect to see on a mid-tier smartphone these days. Focusing on the solid state drive (SSD) and its relatively meager capacity gave these articles a touchstone that was easy to grasp by a mainstream audience. Even if it was a flawed comparison, readers came away with a fun fact for the water cooler — “My computer’s got a bigger drive than the James Webb.”

Of course, we know that NASA didn’t hit up eBay for an outdated Samsung EVO SSD to slap into their next-generation space observatory. The reality is that the solid state drive, known officially as the Solid State Recorder (SSR), was custom built to meet the exact requirements of the JWST’s mission; just like every other component on the spacecraft. Likewise, its somewhat unusual 68 GB capacity isn’t just some arbitrary number, it was precisely calculated given the needs of the scientific instruments onboard.

With so much buzz about the James Webb Space Telescope’s storage capacity, or lack thereof, in the news, it seemed like an excellent time to dive a bit deeper into this particular subsystem of the observatory. How is the SSR utilized, how did engineers land on that specific capacity, and how does its design compare to previous space telescopes such as the Hubble?

Continue reading “How Does The James Webb Telescope Phone Home?”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: July 24, 2022

OK, maybe that won’t buff right out. NASA has released a more detailed analysis of the damage suffered by the James Webb Space Telescope in a run-in with a micrometeoroid, and has deemed the damage “uncorrectable”. Not that any damage to JWST is correctable, at least in the sense that the Hubble Space Telescope was able to be fitted with optics to fix its precisely-yet-inaccurately-ground main mirror. JWST is far too remote for a service call, so correctability in this case refers to a combination of what can be accomplished by tweaking the shape and position of the affected mirror segment, and what can be taken care of with image processing. The damage to segment C3, as well as damage to the other segments in a total of six collisions in the half year Webb has been on station, are assessed via “wavefront sensing”, which looks at how out of phase the light coming from each mirror segment is. The damage sounds bad, and it certainly must hurt for the techs and engineers who so lovingly and painstakingly built the thing to see it dinged up already, but in the long run, this damage shouldn’t hamper Webb’s long-term science goals.

In other space news, we hear that the Perseverance rover has taken its first chunk out of the ancient river delta in Jezero Crater. The rover has been poking around looking for something interesting to sample, but everything it tried out with its abrading tool was either too brittle, too hard to get at, or scientifically dull. Eventually the rover found a good spot to drill, and managed to bring up a 6.7-cm core sample. This makes the tenth core sample collected overall, and the first from the delta area, which is thought to have the best chance to contain evidence of ancient Martian life.

Closer to home, we’ve all likely heard of robotic surgery, but the image that conjures up doesn’t really comport with reality. Robot-assisted surgery is probably a better term, since surgical robots are generally just ultra-precise remote manipulators that are guided by a skilled surgeon. But if a study on surgery robot performance is any indication, the days of human surgeons might be numbered. The study compared accuracy and speed of both a human surgeon controlling a standard Da Vinci surgical robot and an autonomous version of the robot alone, using a depth camera for sensing. Using a standard surgical skills test, the autonomous system matched the human surgeons in terms of failures — thankfully, no “oopsies” for either — but bested the humans in speed and positional accuracy. It’ll probably be a while before fully autonomous surgeons are a thing, but we wouldn’t be betting against it in the long run.

Most readers will no doubt have heard the exciting news that Supercon will be back this year as an in-person event! Make sure you set aside the first weekend in November to make the pilgrimage to Pasadena — it’ll be great seeing everyone again after the long absence. But if you just can’t wait till November for an IRL con, consider dropping by SCALE 19X, coming up this week in Los Angeles. The Southern California Linux Expo is being held July 28 through 31, and features a ton of speakers, including a keynote by Vint Cerf. Hackaday readers can save 50% on tickets with promo code HACK.

And finally, as a lover of Easter eggs of all kinds, but specifically of the hidden message in software variety, we appreciated this ode to the Easter egg, the embedded artistry that has served as a creative outlet for programmers over the years. The article lists a few great examples of the art form, along with explaining why they’re actually important artifacts of the tech world and what they’re good for. We tried out a few of the ones listed in the article that we hadn’t heard of before; some hits, some misses, but they’re all appreciated. Well, most of them — the corporate rah-rah kind can bugger straight off as far as we’re concerned.

A wall-mounted display made from 18 golden hexagonal mirrors

Peer Into Space Through This James Webb-Style Hexagonal Mirror

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) generated considerable excitement when its first test images were released earlier this year: they proved that the instrument was working and helped its engineers to set up all systems for maximum performance. But the real proof of the pudding came last week, when the first batch of beautiful full-scale pictures was unveiled. If you thought those pictures were pretty enough to hang on your wall, you’re not the only one: [Fredrik], also known as [Cellar Nerd], built a wall-mounted display, shaped like the JWST’s main mirror, that cycles through images taken by the space telescope.

The frame holding the mirror is made of plywood. [Fredrik] designed it in Fusion 360, but decided to cut it by hand using a jigsaw; 3D printing the thing would have resulted in a large number of small pieces that might be hard to fit together with sufficient accuracy. After cutting the wood and painting it black, it was simply a matter of sticking the mirror tiles on top and the basic JWST design was done.

The set of eighteen golden hexagonal mirrors might seem to be the hardest bit to make, but was actually the easiest: [Fredrik] simply bought them ready-made on Amazon. The item’s description didn’t include any precise measurements, so he had to wait until the mirrors arrived before he could make the rest of the setup. The segments also don’t have the nanometer accuracy required for a real telescope: in fact, they’re not even flat enough to be useful as an everyday mirror. But that doesn’t really matter: the whole setup is pretty enough that [Fredrik]’s wife even wanted it to have pride of place in the hallway.

An old 15.6″ laptop display sits behind the frame and shows an image through the gap in the center. The display is quite a bit larger than necessary, so the images are always placed in the middle of the screen and scaled to obtain the correct size. A Raspberry Pi 2 is used to store the images and drive the display; it currently cycles through a fixed set of pictures, but [Fredrik] plans to have it automatically download the latest JWST images once a reliable online source is available.

If the basic design looks a bit familiar, you might have seen this static James Webb mirror that we featured before. We’ve also taken a deep dive into the fascinating engineering behind the JWST’s cryocooling system that gives it its spectacular infrared performance. Continue reading “Peer Into Space Through This James Webb-Style Hexagonal Mirror”

NASA’s Flying Telescope Is Winding Down Operations

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope is arguably the best known and most successful observatory in history, delivering unprecedented images that have tantalized the public and astronomers alike for more than 30 years. But even so, there’s nothing particularly special about Hubble. Ultimately it’s just a large optical telescope which has the benefit of being in space rather than on Earth’s surface. In fact, it’s long been believed that Hubble is not dissimilar from contemporary spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office — it’s just pointed in a different direction.

There are however some truly unique instruments in NASA’s observational arsenal, and though they might not have the name recognition of the Hubble or James Webb Space Telescopes, they still represent incredible feats of engineering. This is perhaps best exemplified by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne infrared telescope built into a retired airliner that is truly one-of-a-kind.

Unfortunately this unique aerial telescope also happens to be exceptionally expensive to operate; with an annual operating cost of approximately $85 million, it’s one of the agency’s most expensive ongoing astrophysics missions. After twelve years of observations, NASA and their partners at the German Aerospace Center have decided to end the SOFIA program after its current mission concludes in September.

With the telescope so close to making its final observations, it seems a good time to look back at this incredible program and why the US and German space centers decided it was time to put SOFIA back in the hangar.

Continue reading “NASA’s Flying Telescope Is Winding Down Operations”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope has had a long and sometimes painful journey from its earliest conception to its ultimate arrival at Lagrange point L2 and subsequent commissioning. Except for the buttery-smooth launch and deployment sequence, things rarely went well for the telescope, which suffered just about every imaginable bureaucratic, scientific, and engineering indignity during its development. But now it’s time to see what this thing can do — almost. NASA has announced that July 12 will be “Image Release Day,” which will serve as Webb’s public debut. The relative radio silence from NASA on Webb since the mirror alignment was completed — apart from the recent micrometeoroid collision, of course — suggests the space agency has been busy with “first light” projects. So there’s good reason to hope that the first released images from Webb will be pretty spectacular. The images will drop at 10:30 AM EDT, so mark your calendars and prepare to be wowed. Hopefully.

Continue reading “Hackaday Links: June 19, 2022”

About As Cold As It Gets: The Webb Telescope’s Cryocooler

If you were asked to name the coldest spot in the solar system, chances are pretty good you’d think it would be somewhere as far as possible from the ultimate source of all the system’s energy — the Sun. It stands to reason that the further away you get from something hot, the more the heat spreads out. And so Pluto, planet or not, might be a good guess for the record low temperature.

But, for as cold as Pluto gets — down to 40 Kelvin — there’s a place that much, much colder than that, and paradoxically, much closer to home. In fact, it’s only about a million miles away, and right now, sitting at a mere 6 Kelvin, the chunk of silicon at the focal plane of one of the main instruments aboard the James Webb Space telescope makes the surface of Pluto look downright balmy.

The depth of cold on Webb is all the more amazing given that mere meters away, the temperature is a sizzling 324 K (123 F, 51 C). The hows and whys of Webb’s cooling systems are chock full of interesting engineering tidbits and worth an in-depth look as the world’s newest space telescope gears up for observations.

Continue reading “About As Cold As It Gets: The Webb Telescope’s Cryocooler”

Hackaday Links Column Banner

Hackaday Links: March 20, 2022

Well, that de-escalated quickly! It was less than a week ago that the city of Shenzhen, China was put on lockdown due to a resurgence of COVID-19 in the world’s electronics manufacturing epicenter. This obviously caused no small amount of alarm up and down the electronics supply chain, promising to once again upset manufacturers seeking everything from PCBs to components to complete electronic assemblies. But just a few days later, the Chinese government announced that the Shenzhen lockdown was over. At least partially, that is — factories and public transportation have been reopened in five of the city’s districts, with iPhone maker Foxconn, one of the bigger players in Shenzhen, given the green light to partially reopen. What does this mean for hobbyists’ ability to get cheap PCBs made quickly? That’s hard to say, at least at this point. Please feel free to share your experiences with any supply chain disruptions in the comments below.

Better news from a million miles away, as NASA announced that the James Webb Space Telescope finished the first part of its complex mirror alignment procedure. The process, which uses the complex actuators built into each of the 18 hexagonal mirror segments, slightly moves each mirror to align them all into one virtual optical surface. The result is not only the stunning “selfie” images we’ve been seeing, but also a beautiful picture of the star Webb has been focusing on as a target. The video below explains the process in some detail, along with sharing that the next step is to move the mirrors in and out, or “piston” them, so that the 18 separate wavefronts all align to send light to the instruments in perfect phase. Talk about precision!

Is a bog-standard Raspberry Pi just not tough enough for your application? Do you need to run DOOM on a  platform that can take a few g of vibration and still keep working? Sick of your Pi-based weather station breaking own when it gets a little wet or too hot? Then you’ll want to take a look at the DuraCOR Pi, a ruggedized chassis containing a Pi CM4 that’s built for extreme environments. The machine is in a tiny IP67-rated case and built to MIL-STD specs with regard to vibration, temperature, humidity, and EMI conditions. This doesn’t really seem like something aimed at the hobbyist market — it’s marketed by Curtiss-Wright Defense Solutions, a defense contractor that traces its roots all the way back to a couple of bicycle mechanics from Ohio that learned how to fly. So this Pi is probably more like something you’d spec if you were building a UAV or something like that. Still, it’s cool to know such things are out there.

BrainLubeOnline has a fun collection of X-rays. With the exception of a mouse — the other kind — everything is either electronic or mechanical, which makes for really interesting pictures. Seeing the teeth on a gear or the threads on a screw, and seeing right through the object, shows the mechanical world in a whole new light — literally.

And finally, would you buy a car that prevents you from opening the hood? Most of us probably wouldn’t, but then again, most of us probably wouldn’t buy a Mercedes EQS 580 electric sedan. Sarah from Sarah -n- Tuned on YouTube somehow got a hold of one of these babies, which she aptly describes as a “German spaceship,” and took it for a test drive, including a “full beans” acceleration test. Just after that neck-snapping ride, at about the 7:20 mark in the video below, she asks the car’s built-in assistant to open the hood, a request the car refused by saying, “The hood may only be opened by a specialist workshop.”  Sarah managed to get it open anyway, and it’s not a frunk — it’s home to one of the two motors that power the car, along with all kinds of other goodies.