Space Sunday: transporting a telescope, NS-18, Lucy and China

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), shown with the central segment of its gold mirror just visible above the compressed solar shield, housed within the inner casing and support structure of STTARS, is lowered towards the base of the container. Credit: Northrop Grumman / NASA

How do you ship a telescope several thousand kilometres without damaging it? You pack it in a special carry-case. How do you transport it in conditions that allow it and its ultra-sensitive components to remain completely clean with a strictly controlled environment? You ship it in a very special case. How do you do all this with a telescope that is 20 metres in length, 14 metres across and weighs 6.5 tonnes?

You get a really big special case – which is precisely what NASA has done with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). They call it STTARS – the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea, and it is pretty much as remarkable as the telescope itself.

Weighing 76 tonnes, STTARS is 33.5 metres in length, 4.6 metres wide and 5.5 metres high. It was built specifically to handle the shipping of various JWST components around the United States and bring them together at the Northrop Grumman assembly and integration facilities at Redondo Beach, California. And now it has been used to ship the completed telescope the 9,500 km California to the launch site in French Guiana.

STTARS, carrying the JWST, en route to Seal Station, California. Credit: NASA

STTARS is more than just a container. It is an ultra-clean, hermetically sealed environment designed to minimise all vibrations and G-forces that reach the telescope and its sensitive instruments during transport, while holding them in an atmosphere that is strictly regulated and allows for the presence of no more than 100 airborne particles greater than or equal to 0.5 microns in size within it. For reference, half a micron is just one hundredth of the width of a human hair!

To achieve this, STTARS also had to be built in an ultra-clean environment, and before each use it is subjected to a highly-detailed “cleaning” using high-intensity ultra-violet light to both locate contaminants so they can be removed, and to kill off microbes. Following installation, the unit is connected to a dedicated heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) system that maintains temperature, humidity and pressure precisely as the telescope experienced them within Northrop Grumman’s clean room. In addition, it contains special mounts and dampeners designed to hold the telescope securely and isolate it as much as possible from bumps and other forces when being moved around.

Even so, moving STTARS around still takes considerable care. For example, the 35 km drive from Northrop Grumman’s facilities the port at Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach in preparation from the journey to French Guiana was performed at an average speed of just 10-12 km/h to avoid undue bumps, and potholes along the route had to be repaired in advance. The journey was also carried out at night to both minimise traffic disruption and the amount of traffic vibration affecting STTARS and its cargo.

Once at Seal Beach, STTARS was carefully transferred to the MN Colibri for the trip to the European Spaceport – air transport having been ruled out both because of the amount of vibration and stress it could place on JWST, and because the 96-km journey from airport to spaceport in French Guiana would require the reinforcing of several bridges in order to support STTARS weight.

Built as a roll-on – roll-off (Ro-Ro) freighter by Maritime Nantaise, the MN Colibri is in fact a highly specialised vessel ideal for transporting JWST. Commissioned by the European Space Agency, it is also used to transport Ariane and Soyuz rockets and their cargoes from Europe and Russia and elsewhere in the world to the European Spaceport. Not only is she fitted with the kind of specialist equipment needed by sensitive HVAC systems, etc., she has the unique characteristic of being able to adjust her trim whilst at sea to reduce things like vessel roll to minimise the stresses placed on her cargo. Even so, travelling at an average 15-16 knots, her journey down the coasts of the United States and central America and through the Panama canal to Port de Pariacabo, Kourou, roughly 15 km by road from the space centre, took almost a month, the vessel arriving on October 12th.

The use of the MV Colibri meant that at no point did STTARS have to be transferred off of its transporter, again minimise vibration or other shocks being transmitted to the telescope (as well as reducing the risk of any form of unforeseen loading / unloading accident), allowing its special transporter and support equipment to been driven on to the vessel (with the assistance of a barge, purely due to the layout of the docks), be secured, and then driven off again for the journey to the space port, where it arrived on October 13th.

Over the next two months, JWST will be unpacked and given a careful check-up. It will then be prepared for launch, being mounted on its launch adaptor and Ariane upper stage, enclosed within its payload fairings and then integrated with the booster itself. Providing all goes according to plan, the telescope is due to be launched on December 18th, 2021.

Blue Origin NS-18

Wednesday, October 13th saw Blue Origin complete the 18th successful flight of their New Shepard sub-orbital system.

Aboard NS-18 were Blue Origin’s President of Mission & Flight Operations Audrey Powers, fare-paying passengers Chris Boshuizen, co-founder of the Earth-observation company Planet, and Glen de Vries, co-founder of the medical software company Medidata Solutions, and invited guest, actor William Shatner.

A camera mounted at the top of the New Shepard booster captures the capsule rising ahead of it following separation (l). And a high-resolution camera images the separated booster and capsule from Earth (r). Credit: Blue Origin

In the process, Mr. Shatner – best known for his roles at Captain James T. Kirk, police officer T.J. Hooker and eccentric lawyer Denny Crane – became the oldest individual to date to fly into space at 90 years of age – a record he could well hold for some time – and Chris Boshuizen became the first full Australian national to become an astronaut (not counting those who have flown space missions under dual nationality).

The live stream of the launch revealed that the company has been somewhat stung by the essay co-written by 21 current and past employees and recently published by The Lioness that cites safety and other concerns: the initial part of the live stream sounded more like an attempt to rebut the charges made than an attempt to cover the launch and flight.

NS-18 crew (l to r): Glen de Vries, Audrey Powers, William Shatner and Chris Boshuizen, share a moment holding on to the central table aboard their capsule as they experience micro-gravity. Credit: Blue Origin

Overall, the flight was, from an observational standpoint, uneventful. The vehicle lifted-off smoothly as scheduled, then climbed up through 57 km, where main engine cut-off (MECO) occurred. Moments after this, the capsule separated from the booster, and both continued to rise under their own inertia and in tandem, the capsule above and to one side of the booster to avoid collision.

Apogee was reached at 107 km, and the fall back to Earth began. At this point, the two parts of the New Shepard vehicle became more distanced from one another, the pencil- line booster, kept upright by deployable fins, dropping more-or-less vertically through the air, the rounded form of the capsule generating more air resistance and so falling at a slightly slower rate. This meant that the booster, re-firing its BE-3 engine at 1.2 km above the ground to ease itself into a touch-down, ended its forth flight before the capsule had got as far as deploying its parachutes.

Blue Origin NS-18 drifts towards landing under its three main parachutes. Credit: Blue Origin

The initial deployment of the capsule’s drogue ‘chutes at just under 2 km altitude, shaved 100 km/h from its descent speed  – from around 320 km/h to 221 km/h  – in 12 seconds, bringing the capsule down to a speed where the three main parachute could deploy, slowing the capsule a a fairly “gentle”22 km/h prior to touchdown.

Following his egress from the capsule, it was clear that Mr. Shatner had been profoundly affected by the flight and the site of Earth from space, as he talked in very emotional terms to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos (who initially and sadly appeared more interested in grabbing some champagne than in paying attention) about understanding the real fragility of the Earth, something which has remained his core point of discussion during interviews in the days following the flight.

In this, Mr. Shatner’s experience was perhaps a step apart from his fellow passengers, who – as with those of the MS-16 flight – seemed more interested in the “fun” of micro-gravity than in pondering deeper thoughts. We often – perhaps glibly – say that flying into space is a “life changing” experience; but William Shatner articulates this perhaps in a way we can finally understand, as he does the sheer fragility of our world  and its thin envelope of life-giving atmosphere. I would that more – particularly those in power – could share in his experience and realisation.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: transporting a telescope, NS-18, Lucy and China”

More Halloween tales from Seanchai Library

Seanchai Library

It’s time to highlight another week of storytelling in Voice by the staff and volunteers at the Seanchai Library. As always, all times SLT, and events are held at the Library’s home in Nowhereville, unless otherwise indicated. Note that the schedule below may be subject to change during the week, please refer to the Seanchai Library website for the latest information through the week.

Sunday, October 17th, 13:30: A Night in the Lonesome October

It is the start of the Haunted Month, and Seanchai Library (SL) are marking the arrival and passage of October with a reading of Roger Zelazy’s A Night in the Lonesome October, the last of Zelazy’s published works.

A Night In The Lonesome October

Every few decades, when the Moon is is full on the night of Halloween, the fabric of reality thins and the door between worlds becomes unlatched. At this time, those with certain Occult knowledge gather to engage in The Game.

Those who play take opposing sides; on one: those who seek to win The Game and throw open the door by the light of the full Moon to usher in the Great Old Ones from the other side so that they might  remake Earth in their own images and enslave or slaughter the human race in the process. Opposing the Openers are those are those who would, by winning, re-latch the door and deny the Great Old Ones their prize – at least until The Game once more resumes.

Thus, through the month of October, the Players in the game – all archetypal characters from Victorian Era gothic fiction – form alliances, make deals, oppose one another, and even kill off opposing Players, until the night of October 31st, when the ritual of the door takes place, and the fate of the world is decided.

Each Player has his or her familiar, an animal companion with near-human intelligence, to help them complete the numerous preparations they must make and so be ready for the ritual on the final night. One of these is Snuff the dog, the familiar of Jack the Ripper, and who not only attends the play of The Game with his master, but also acts as the narrator of the month’s proceedings.

At the Haunted Hollow.

Monday, October 18th, 19:00: Watchstar

Alone in the desert, Daiya is faced with dilemma that will determine her fate. If she can successfully resolve it she will join the Net of her village, but if she fails, her life will be spent with the feared Merged Ones. Confused and torn between worlds near and far, Daiya harbours a secret of her people, and must find a way to move beyond her discoveries to a safe place where she can survive.

Join Gyro Muggins as he reads from Nebula-winning author Pamela Sargent’s Watchstar series.

Tuesday, October 19th

12:00 Noon: Russell Eponym

With music, and poetry in Ceiluradh Glen.

19:00: The Halloween Tree

On All Hallows Eve, young Pipkin is due to meet his eight friends outside a haunted house on the edge of town. But as he runs through the gathering gloom, Something sweep him away.

Arriving at the house in expectation of meeting Pipkin, his eight friends instead encounter the mystical Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, who informs them that Pipkin has been taken on a journey that could determine if he lives or dies.

Aided by Moundshroud and using the tail of a kite, the eight friends pursue Pipkin through time and space, passing through the past civilisations – Egypt, Greece, Rome, the Celts – witnessing all that has given rise to the day they know as “Halloween”, and the role things like ghosts and the dead play in it.

Then, at length they come to the Halloween Tree itself, laden with jack-o’-lanterns, its branches representing the confluence of all these traditions, legends and tales, drawing them together into itself.

At the Haunted Hollow.

Wednesday, October 20th, 19:00 More from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters

With Caledonia Skytower.

Thursday, October 21st

18:00-20:00: Slumber Party Ghost Stories

With Shandon Loring at the Haunted Hollow.

21:00: Seanchai Late Night

Contemporary sci-fi / fantasy with Finn Zeddmore.

Friday, October 22nd, 19:00: Ghostbusters

If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good
Who you gonna call?
Cale & Shand!

With Caledonia Skytower and Shandon Loring.

Saturday, October 23rd, 14:00: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

A special presentation by Seanchai Library via Virtual Community Radio.

Tune-in via your Internet radio player, your browser or even you parcel’s audio stream as Seanchai Library presents and VCR hosts an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale about Gabriel John Utterson’s investigations into the strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr Henry Jekyll and the evil Edward Hyde.