Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Astronomy has high-stakes equipment setups

Via the New York Times: 

What do astronomers eat for breakfast on the day that their $10 billion telescope launches into space? Their fingernails.

“You work for years and it all goes up in a puff of smoke,” said Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona.

Dr. Rieke admits her fingers will be crossed on the morning of Dec. 24 when she tunes in for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. For 20 years, she has been working to design and build an ultrasensitive infrared camera that will live aboard the spacecraft. The Webb is the vaunted bigger and more powerful successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. Astronomers expect that it will pierce a dark curtain of ignorance and supposition about the early days of the universe, and allow them to snoop on nearby exoplanets...

...And there is plenty to be anxious about. The Ariane 5 rocket that is carrying the spacecraft has seldom failed to deliver its payloads to orbit. But even if it survives the launch, the telescope will have a long way to go.

Over the following month it will have to execute a series of maneuvers with 344 “single points of failure” in order to unfurl its big golden mirror and deploy five thin layers of a giant plastic sunscreen that will keep the telescope and its instruments in the cold and dark. Engineers and astronomers call this interval six months of high anxiety because there is no prospect of any human or robotic intervention or rescue should something go wrong.

There's something great about experimental lab chemistry where screwing something up and recovering isn't that big of a deal, and sending someone to fix an error would not either be impossible or requiring the expenditure of a hundred million dollars...

344 single points of failure??!? That seems like a lot...

1 comment:

  1. 344 points of failure really sounds like a fun FMEA-type of meeting.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20