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Airbus Defence and Space’s expertise for Hubble’s successor

Airbus Defence and Space is developing the ‘super-eye’ for the James Webb Space Telescope

Work is surging ahead on the construction of the successor to the celebrated Hubble space telescope. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will in a few years’ time allow astronomers to look back through the universe to the ‘first light’.

jwstAs prime contractor to the European Space Agency, Airbus Defence and Space is developing the ‘super-eye’ NIRSpec spectrograph for JWST. NIRSpec, capable of detecting the faintest radiation from the furthest galaxies, will be integrated in JWST and peer into the origins of our Universe.

All in all, 2010 has been a very busy and successful year for the Airbus Defence and Space NIRSpec team.

An ice-cold eye to look deep into the past

The space observatory and its instruments will have to survive in extremely harsh conditions, and are being built to correspondingly daunting specifications. After being subjected to a load many times greater than the Earth’s acceleration during the launch, the instruments will then be cooled down to a temperature approaching absolute zero (-273 degrees Celsius). Once the spacecraft has reached its final orbit and the telescope has been unfolded, the astronomical instruments have to be placed and held in position, with a precision that could be likened to aiming to hit a pinhead from a distance of one kilometre. Given these conditions, it is easy to understand how important it is for the instruments to be thoroughly tested after integration.

January–June 2010

In February, the Airbus Defence and Space team delivered the initial NIRSpec model, known as the engineering test unit or ETU, to NASA. Throughout the spring, the flight hardware arrived in separate batches from the individual subcontractors, enabling Airbus Defence and Space to integrate the various components in the flight model one by one.

July–December 2010

The Airbus Defence and Space team had completed the integration of the NIRSpec flight model by early October, and was happy to have reached this milestone within the current time schedule. The flight model then underwent functional testing before being sent in mid-October to the IABG test centre in Munich for rig testing. In early November, the NIRSpec instrument came through the prescribed vibration and acoustic tests with flying colours. It performed exactly as the engineers had expected, admittedly still at ‘normal’ temperatures. At present, the flight model is back at Airbus Defence and Space in Ottobrunn for post-test verification.


The flight model will be returning to IABG before the end of December, where it will be installed in the thermal vacuum chamber. It will remain there over the holiday period, waiting for another gruelling test phase to begin on 10 January 2011. The thermal vacuum tests will then run non-stop for 100 days, continuing around the clock, seven days a week. Once this stage is over, NIRSpec can be finally declared fit for space.NIRSpec

TechnologyJWSTSpace Telescope