HENRIETTA, N.Y. (WROC) — There’s always a Rochester connection, and this time its to the James Webb Telescope. Don Figer, Director of Center for Detectors, headed the rigorous testing to determine which light detector would work best, as well as the deployment systems. James Webb Space Telescope now encroaches upon one million miles from earth this weekend, and so far, it has been a perfect launch and deployment.

Figer also maintains a lab at RIT, where he and his students are using a replica of the same unit to test detectors that he used in his original run working on the telescope, for the next launch. Maybe twenty years from now. But Figer’s journey with the telescope started more than 20 years ago.

Figer first started work on the James Webb telescope in1999, went through to 2006, back when the project was called the “Next Generation Space Telescope.”

“I started in 99, as a young man, and I’m an old man now,” Figer said. “So it’s taken this long. And when I started 99, we were told it would launch in 2007. So we’re a bit late.”

He and his team were tasked with testing which of a wide array of light detectors would work best for the telescope. These detectors are similar conceptually to the ones we have in phone or news cameras, except much more powerful.

“If your camera costs $10 billion,” Figer said, referencing the total cost of the JWST. “You’re willing to spend more money to get even a little bit of improvement. And so the detectors on the James Webb Space Telescope cost around a million dollars each. And they’re better in the ability to convert light into a signal.”

Figer also worked on the deployment procedures of the mirrors and other shielding arrays for the telescope. These processes are so precise it goes lightyears beyond surgical, with hundreds to thousands of separate operations that could go wrong.

“They’re precisely aligned within say, 10,000th of the thickness of a human hair,” Figer said. “That’s how closely they have to be co aligned. And once they do that, the light when it bounces off, the individual segments will come together at a focus and make the most intense image that can be made.”

The telescope launched on Christmas of last year, and it meant Figer could actually breathe, and finally have an answer to a decades-old question.

“It looks like it works,” Figer said, with visible relief exuding from his face. “I didn’t know the answer to the question, is the thing going work? No matter how much time I spent on it, or other people spent on it, you can’t really answer the question until it happens. So it’s crossing your fingers, and then relief.”

Figer posing with the replica of his detector testing unit at RIT

Corning glass is on JWST, too

Corning and glass go hand in hand, and in this out of this world project, it’s no different. The glass giant crafted optical components, and mirrors. News 8 spoke with Jeffery Santman, Technology Lead for Hyperspectral Imaging, about the achievement and their contribution.

Talk to me about Corning’s involvement on the James Webb telescope.

Back in 2004, we were approached by a group of engineers… working on behalf of the Canadian Space Agency. And they were sent to Corning, because we had recently completed work on the New Horizons probe for Pluto — as well as some other classified work that we’re not going to get into — but so they came to us because we we manufactured optical components, mirrors and and housings for those mirrors. That combined make telescopes. But at the time, we didn’t include the detector that goes with the image, the film, if you will, we just did the optical stuff.

So what are these mirrors?

We worked on two other instruments that are included on James Webb. One of them is called the Fine Guidance Sensor, or FGS. And this is a smaller telescope that takes a little bit of the beam that’s coming in from the main telescope, and manages the guidance of the telescope, make sure it’s pointing at the right things in order to collect data.

The current name is the near infrared imager-slitless spectrometer. When both of those instruments are up and running, but their primary function is to obviously to point the telescope in the right direction. And the spectrometer is used to analyze the atmosphere of exoplanets or gases in nebula you know, it’s a spectrometer, but it’s also an imaging spectrometer. So it kind of goes back to our hyperspectral heritage. But like I said at the time, we weren’t building block systems. So we didn’t include the detector, we only delivered the optical assembly for this slitless spectrometer.

So one thing I took away also from my conversation with Don was one thing that makes the made this project difficult not only because it was technology that a lot of it had never been used or deployed before. But James Webb Space Telescope is positioned in a way where once it’s out there, it’s out there, there’s really not a lot of fixing, if anything that can be done. So everything has to be perfect and thoroughly tested and obviously, of the cold vacuum of space is not an ideal thing for things to work. So when you’re developing this technology, how do you test them to make sure that they’re going to work in this environment, and they’re not going to need a ton of fixing or repair?

When when we built those two, the two subsystems, both of them were tested in crossbred cryogenic chamber. So we have big chambers that we put the telescope in, and it takes it down to the same vacuum and to the same temperature, that it’s going to see an operation in space. And it’s done repeatedly.

You don’t do it once and say, “yep, it worked at one time, therefore, it’s probably going to work forever.” You have to do it several times and make sure that nothing changes between tests. And we helped develop the chambers that were used in this case.

The original launching of the James Webb telescope, was supposed to be in 2017. And obviously, it launched on Christmas of 2021. So for a lot of people, there’s this really protracted period of waiting with bated breath. I mean, for for Corning, when was the timeline of your involvement relative to the launch.

So when we were first approached, they were talking about a launch date of 2010. That kind of came and went while we were in the process of working on it. And that got pushed out to the 2016-2017 dates. We delivered the last piece of hardware in 2011. To come down. And that was the actual flight hardware.

That is a very long time to wait talk to me about have the feeling of this thing actually being launched at launch. I know it’s still in the process of deployment, but I’m sure it was you talk to me about the thoughts and feelings and you actually saw this thing go up successfully.

Oh, it was it was great. Yeah, the waiting was terrible. We kind of knew by that time that there was going to be a long wait, and there was nothing to do about it.

The feeling at the time of the launch, though, was a mixture of you know, “thank God it finally went” and “oh my god, I really hope this works.” You’ve everybody’s read the horror stories about the 458 separate single points of failure that we had to get through. But we did everything went absolutely perfectly.

Most of the people that are still at Corning that worked on it all kind of huddled together and, and stayed current with each deployment as it was happening, and each (step took place) there was literally be a big cheer team, because it was like, we’re one step closer, one more thing work the way it was supposed to.

I think the biggest relief that came to everybody, in addition to yes, everything working, that the sunshield deployed properly, and primary mirror deployed properly.

They’re going to get 20 years out of this thing. That was just fantastic. I mean, you know, finding out that this thing is going to be doing what it’s supposed to do for that long, was just tremendous.

It’s definitely a team effort. And I can’t stress this enough. There’s between 50 and 100 people that laid hands on those parts as they were making their way through Corning and keen and certain key people might have been at the top of the list of who was in charge of things, but everybody took that stuff on with them every night. You know, they we all sweated over it.

More on JWST

In a mission more than two decades in the making, NASA launched the most expensive science probe ever built Saturday, a $10 billion telescope that will attempt to capture starlight from the first galaxies to be born in the fiery crucible of the Big Bang.

Billions over budget and years behind schedule, the James Webb Space Telescope finally got off the ground Christmas day, rocketing up from the European Space Agency’s launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, at 7:20 a.m. EST atop an Ariane 5 rocket.

The telescope is optimized to capture images of the first stars and galaxies to begin shining in the aftermath of the Big Bang, light that has been stretched into the infrared portion of the spectrum by the expansion of space itself over the past 13.8 billion years.

That light can’t be seen by the iconic Hubble, which Webb will eventually replace. Hubble was designed to study visible light wavelengths but even so, it has detected galaxies dating back to within a half billion years of the Big Bang.

Webb should be able to push several hundred million years beyond that, detecting light that began heading out when the universe was just 200 million years or so old. That’s the era when the cosmos first emerged from the hydrogen fog of birth and starlight began traveling freely through space.

The long hoped-for baby pictures of the universe are expected to shed revolutionary light on the formation and evolution of galaxies, the supermassive black holes that lurk at their hearts and the life cycles of stars, from birth to the titanic supernova blasts that cooked up most of the elements in the periodic table.

Closer to home, Webb also will study the atmospheres of planets orbiting nearby stars to characterize their habitability and provide routine, up-close looks at planets, moons, asteroids and comets in Earth’s solar system from Mars outward to the remote Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.