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Webb Telescope receives top Space Foundation award

HUNTSVILLE — The James Webb Space Telescope team, which has strong Huntsville connections, has been selected to receive the 2023 John L. “Jack” Swigert, Jr., Award for Space Exploration, a top award from the Space Foundation. This annual award honors a space agency, company, or consortium of organizations in the realm of space exploration and discovery.

The Marshall Space Flight Center and the University of Alabama in Huntsville contributed to key elements of the world’s largest space telescope.

The Marshall Space Flight Center’s involvement with Webb began in 1989, under the observatory’s previous name, the Next Generation Space Telescope. Marshall was responsible for the strawman design and the integrated modeling of the design.

From 1996-2003, Marshall’s focus shifted to designing and developing technology that would be used in support of the mirrors on Webb. The Marshall team provided technical oversight of the Webb mirrors, and the X-ray and Cryogenic Facility was busy running cryo tests of the full-size latch system, the flight mirrors, actuator systems, and flight hardware.

UAH’s connection with the project is through its Center for Applied Optics and Principal Research Scientist Dr. James Hadaway in 1996 and center Director Dr. Patrick Reardon in 1998.

Hadaway was working on a space telescope for Marshall Space Flight Center’s Advanced Concepts group and was asked by NASA to lead a team to develop and operate a system to test mirror technologies for the telescope’s primary mirror.

“I remember many times during my work on (the Webb Telescope) when I would just stop and think to myself, ‘Wow, I’m working on the largest space telescope ever built, how cool is that?’” Hadaway said.

The Swigert award, which pays tribute to NASA astronaut Jack Swigert for his legacy of space exploration, will recognize the contributions of the team members who designed, developed, and now operate the Webb mission.

The award will be presented at the Space Foundation’s opening ceremony of the Space Symposium in Colorado on April 17.

“The James Webb Space Telescope team represents the best of our humanity and an enduring pursuit to better understand the cosmos,” said NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. “Every new image is a new discovery.

“Webb is the culmination of decades of persistence and once-unthinkable human ingenuity made possible by international partnerships. Together, we are unfolding the universe and inspiring the world.”

Space Foundation CEO Tom Zelibor said within its first year of operations, the work and revelations by the James Webb Space Telescope team has opened a new chapter of knowledge and inspiration that will forever change our lives and history.

“This is an unparalleled achievement and is transforming astronomy and space science while delivering new inspiration and imagination to every generation and corner of our planet,” said Zelibor. “The partnerships and collaborations between nations, researchers, industry members, and more have also highlighted the incredible things we can do together as we promote knowledge.”

Webb launched Dec. 25, 2021.

In 2022, the Webb team completed an intricate series of deployments to unfold the observatory into its final configuration in space. They then precisely aligned its mirrors to within nanometers, set up and tested its powerful instruments, and officially began Webb’s mission to explore the infrared universe.

With its optics performing nearly twice as well as the mission required, Webb is discovering some of the earliest galaxies ever observed, peering through dusty clouds to see stars forming, and delivering a more detailed view of the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system than ever before.

Webb has also captured new views of planets within our solar system, including the clearest look at Neptune’s rings in decades.

“Our vast and dedicated team on the James Webb Space Telescope mission is already bringing us closer and closer to seeing the earliest, most distant galaxies that shine in our universe,” said Sandra Connelly, acting associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. “Webb is an international collaboration involving a group of thousands of diverse people that has launched NASA into a new era of world-class science and is revolutionizing our view of the cosmos.”


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