Aligning the Eyes of the Universe Machine
The James Webb Space Telescope, in just a few months of operation, has begun to change our view of the universe. Its images—more detailed than what was possible before—show space aglow with galaxies, some of them formed very soon after the big bang.
None of this would be possible without the work of a team led by Scott Acton, the lead wavefront sensing and control scientist for the Webb at Ball Aerospace & Technologies in Colorado. He and his colleagues developedthe systems that align the 18 separate segments of the Webb’s primary mirror with its smaller secondary mirror and science instruments. To produce clear images in the infrared wavelengths the telescope uses, the segments have to be within tens of nanometers of the shape specified in the spacecraft design.
Acton grew up in Wyoming and spent more than 20 years on the Webb team. IEEE Spectrum spoke with Acton after his team had finished aligning the telescope’s optics in space. This transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Tell your story. What got you started?
Scott Acton: When I was seven-years-old, my dad brought home a new television. And he gave me the old television to take apart. I was just enthralled by what I saw inside this television. And from that moment on I was defined by electronics. You look inside an old television and there are mechanisms, there are smells and colors and sights and for a seven-year-old kid, it was just the most amazing thing I’d ever seen.
Fast-forward 25 years and I’m working in the field of adaptive optics. And eventually that led to wavefront sensing and controls, which led to the Webb telescope. [READ MORE]