Charlie Atkinson is a chief engineer at Northrop Grumman and has been leading the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project since 1998.
The average American stays at one job for just more than four years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Atkinson is quite the exception, and to be fair, he has a much cooler job than the average American.
While most people only recently learned about the project, Atkinson and a team of skilled engineers and scientists began working on it nearly a quarter-century ago. Working on a project over such a span of time comes with a variety of challenges such as changing technology, advances in science, the political landscape and even personnel changes.
Atkinson recently sat down with Innovation & Tech Today to chat about the experience, the project and its future.
Innovation & Tech Today: So, how did you become involved in [JWST] back then? Because for most people, this is still something they heard of six months ago probably.
Charlie Atkinson: So, prior to this, I worked on the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which was an extremely exciting program and broke a number of paradigms in terms of what X-ray telescopes can do in terms of just the size and the resolving power and the overall collecting area of that telescope.
I’d worked as a subcontractor to what was then TRW, who was the prime contractor for putting together Chandra, and TRW then became Northrop in 2002 … So, when I got the opportunity to come work at Northrop Grumman, I jumped at the opportunity and started working on a number of different programs, but it was JWST that really piqued my interest because of the amazing engineering challenges that it represented. I remember saying to some of my coworkers, “I really want to build that.” And so, I feel very privileged to have been able to do so.
I&T Today: When thinking of a project that takes decades, how do you accommodate for changes in technology over that amount of time? Because some things, it’s got to be difficult to foresee what could be available to you 10 years ahead of now?
CA: Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. For JWST, we knew at the outset that there were 10 new technologies that had to be invented to enable JWST. So we built what we called a technology roadmap, which mapped out, “Okay, here are these 10 new technologies. What do we need to do to bring them to the point where they can be demonstrated and they’re ready to be used for JWST?” And we also identified some enhancing technology. So if this particular technology matures and is available, let’s insert it into the program at this point.
But at some point, you have to stop evolving the design and really focus on implementing it. And so while new technologies could come into fruition, you need to say, “Hey, can’t do it because it would have ripple effects into the rest of the design.”
Now, that said, we were able to take advantage of a number of emerging technologies in areas that didn’t affect directly the design of the observatory. So, for instance, when laser radar systems came into existence and were available to us, we used them to help with the alignment of the overall telescope and observatory. And advanced data acquisition systems were introduced that allowed us to have over 600 channels of accelerometer data during the vibration testing that were all synchronized to the point we could actually monitor a shock wave that went through the observatory structure.
We did scrutinize other technologies that were coming to bear. The battery is a great example of that. We had a design that had a battery that was well known and we’d used on other missions, but as recent as June of 2020, the company that had built the battery that we were going to use had a new one and it was much more capable, but had exactly the same size electrical interfaces, safety systems, et cetera.
So it was a direct replacement for the one that we had. So we made the decision in June after studying it and making sure there were not going to be any other ramifications of introducing it, we made the change.
I&T Today: I’ll bet it was. I know that JWST is an infrared telescope. Could you explain loosely the light spectrum and what it means to see in infrared?
CA: Yeah. So, it’s a great question. So light travels in waves in the same way that sound does and the best corollary I can think of to describe the spectrum of light is the sound spectrum. So, infrared has longer wavelengths or is lower frequency than other light, just like the bass on your car radio.
I&T Today: Like AM versus FM?
CA: Yeah. I can do that. But just like with your car radio, to get a full idea of what the music sounds like, you need the combination of the bass, the treble and the mid frequency — otherwise you’re not getting a full picture, if you will, of what the music or whatever it is you’re listening to, sounds like. And the same thing with astronomical objects. To get a full picture of what celestial objects are made up of or are doing or the processes involved with them, you need to look at the full range of the light spectrum.
Some of the best images that I’ve seen from astronomical surveys or astronomical objects are when they combine imagery from the Hubble, which operates in the visible a little bit, in the ultraviolet, a little bit in the infrared, combine that with Chandra, which sees X-rays, and with Spitzer, which sees in the infrared. And with that full combination of the electromagnetic spectrum, you get a really good picture of what’s going on.
I&T Today: One of the challenges that is interesting to me is that sitting at Lagrange 2, how does JWST handle the amount of heat that has to be blasted at it pretty much constantly?
CA: Yeah. So that’s what that big tennis court size sun shield does for us. So, the JWST will always be oriented with the telescope and the science instruments on the opposite side of the sun and the Earth, and the sun shield is intended to protect the telescope from that light and that heat. The warm side of the sun shield is, I think, it’s 185 degrees Fahrenheit at some of the warmest places. And then on the cold side, it’s minus 388 Fahrenheit. So, a huge temperature difference, but similar to a corollary to a sunscreen that you put on yourself to avoid a sunburn and this would be the equivalent of a sun protection factor of a million.
I&T Today: Does having a temperature variance on one side or the other that is so dramatic affect the materials you’re able to use, I assume?
CA: Oh, absolutely. A large part of the engineering challenges that we had in designing the observatory was to accommodate those huge temperature differences. And a lot of material characterization had to be performed to ensure that strength and stiffness and all the other mechanical properties of materials were as we need them to be in the environments that they’re going to be in.
The good side is that once temperatures are achieved, JWST’s thermal environment is extremely stable. We don’t go through eclipses like other lower orbit satellites do, like the Hubble and Chandra so we have a very stable thermal environment, which is really beneficial for very long observations JWST’s intended to use.
I&T Today: Wow. And are you still thinking by about June we’ll start seeing some images?
CA: That’s the expectation, yeah, is that the early release science should be coming out around that timeframe.
I&T Today: Will there be any big lag before the public sees anything or do you think there’ll be an eagerness to show the world what you’re finding?
CA: I think a little of both. I know that the astronomical community is anxious to share what they first find. I think they’ll need to collect the data and analyze it and make sure that they understand what they’re seeing before they release it so that’s just a natural part of the process. But, yeah, I think they’re really anxious to get the information out there.
I&T Today: And in looking at a difference in how much farther out it is from earth, how much more powerful it is than Hubble, the different technologies going in, I’m assuming this could be night and day from what we’ve seen from Hubble over the years even, as impressive as those images are?
CA: Yeah, well, agreed. And akin to how much more capable Hubble was versus prior observatories, the amazing things that Hubble has shown us, expect the same advances and leaps forward from JWST.
And the same was true of Chandra. Chandra was so much more capable than previous X-ray observatories, and we’ve learned so much about the high-energy astrophysics around us from Chandra as a result of that. So, yeah, agreed. It’s going to be incredible.
I&T Today: Okay. Is there a long delay in communication back and forth with JWST or are you able to operate it reasonably close to real-time?
CA: It’s very close to real time. We’re a million miles away, and it’s handfuls of seconds to get data. It takes more time to get it processed on the ground than it does for it to get to the ground.
I&T Today: So, do you remain on the James Webb Telescope project moving forward or do you move on to the next mission? I wasn’t sure how Northrop Grumman’s role is played once it’s off the ground.
CA: So, a little bit of both. We’re responsible for supporting the mission through the commissioning, through the June timeframe. And then, because we’ve got a lot of the subject matter experts and the people who built the observatory working at Northrop Grumman, we will have what we call a factory support team who will be there to help troubleshoot problems if there are any, to help with software updates, to keep the mission moving as efficiently as possible. For me, personally, JWST is very dear to me. I’ve spent, like you said, almost 25 years on it. And just like with Chandra, which was launched in 1999, I still stay plugged into Chandra, and I expect to do the same thing with JWST.