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 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.
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.
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.
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.