The James Webb –Most Powerful Known Telescope in the Universe Threatened by Harvey’s Rising Floodwaters (VIDEO)


Isolated in a giant thermal vacuum chamber, NASA’s $8.6 billion next-generation observatory is riding out the worst of Hurricane Harvey, sitting inside a massive, sealed cryogenic chamber at the Johnson Space Center, home of the nation’s astronaut corps and the control center for the International Space Station, JSC is the heart of NASA’s human spaceflight program, a sprawling NASA facility in southeast Houston surrounded by rising floodwaters that some estimates put at 20 trillion gallons.

In July, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) began a 100-day stint in the vault-like thermal vacuum chamber, known as “Chamber A,” which resides in the Center’s “Building 32” and since July has harbored the JWST for a 100-day test simulating the extreme conditions in space. Vacuum pumps remove the air inside the chamber, and liquid nitrogen and helium get pumped in to produce temperatures found in deep space.

The JWST, with its 21-foot-tall gold-coated mirrors, scheduled to launch next year, which has been in the works for more than two decades will be 100 times more powerful than its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, boasting cryogenically-cooled instruments and a 6.5-meter segmented primary mirror that promise to deliver revolutionary observations of the universe’s first galaxies after the Big Bang, and alien planets around nearby stars —assuming it can emerge unscathed from rains and flooding that the National Weather Service has called “unfathomable” and “catastrophic.”



Sarah Kendrew, an astronomer and instrument scientist at the European Space Agency, traveled from Baltimore to Houston Tuesday to support Webb’s testing operations. “I thought I knew about rain (I lived in Britain for a long time!), but nothing could have prepared me for what we are seeing here at the moment,” Kendrew wrote in an email to The Atlantic. “Every time I think we’re through the worst of the storm and it can’t possibly rain any more, another wave hits us with relentless rain, and often violent thunder and lightning.”

“It’s been challenging at times to concentrate on work whilst our phones are sounding emergency flood and tornado alerts several times an hour, and knowing that people just miles from our desks, maybe even family or friends, are in danger and possibly losing their homes,” Kendrew added. But “we’ve actually been able to continue amazingly well with the testing,” she said.

“We are on an island apparently,” JSC flight director Royce Renfrew wrote in a series of tweets Sunday morning. “No way out of my area. Abandoned cars all over on the roads. This event will become yet another item of lore in the long history of flight operations for young flight controllers to learn from,” Renfrew said. Officials announced that JSC would be closed Monday to all but “Mission Essential Personnel,” who are required to stay on-site for critical tasks like maintaining contact with the space station.

But the deluge from Harvey is not yet over. The Center could remain closed for days to come as Harvey’s water-laden clouds continue dumping rain over the region. As of Monday afternoon, that closure was to continue into at least Tuesday according to a post on JSC’s emergency communications Twitter account, which also noted that the Center had so far received 31 inches of precipitation and that local roads were “flooding quickly” in the ongoing downpour.

John Mather, Webb’s senior project scientist, reiterated to Scientific American that the JWST “is safe and so far all the staff are, too. We are very well prepared with people ready to camp in place as needed.” Reporting from JSC on Twitter, the European Space Agency astronomer Sarah Kendrew gave a more detailed appraisal of the situation, noting that workers were using “mops and buckets” to sop up rainwater near workstations in Building 32, but that none of the leaks were near Chamber A. “The telescope,” she wrote, “is totally fine.”

The Daily Galaxy via Scientific American and The Atlantic 


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