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L3Harris Plays Integral Role in NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope

Article was originally published in Rochester Business Journal, link to original article here.


The world’s largest and most complex space science observatory launched last month and is readying to explore every phase of cosmic history, thanks to assistance from employees at L3Harris’ Space and Airborne Systems’ local operation. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is a large, infrared-optimized telescope designed to study the formation of the first stars and galaxies, the evolution of galaxies, the production of elements by stars and the process of star and planet formation.

Webb successfully launched Christmas Day from French Guiana, on the northeastern coast of South America.

Those from L3Harris’ Space and Airborne Systems in Rochester who watched had a special connection with the launch, including Tony Whitman, who is the cryogenic optical test director for the James Webb Space Telescope at L3Harris.

“I was excited and relieved,” he said of the launch. Whitman — who began working on the project in 2003 — said it has spanned a roughly 20-year period and involved some 100 engineers and 200 other employees from L3Harris over that time.

In addition, L3Harris worked with upwards of 20 regional companies, including purchasing custom parts from them for the project, he added.

L3Harris has a history of working on NASA projects, dating back to the firm’s origins as Eastman Kodak’s Co.’s Remote Sensing Systems.

For Webb, the local team orchestrated the integration and test for the Optical Telescope Element on the nearly $10 billion telescope.

The Optical Telescope Element (OTE) is the eye of the James Webb Space Telescope Observatory. It gathers the light coming from space and provides it to the science instruments. The OTE consists of the mirrors as well as structures and subsystems that support the optics.

As part of the NASA team, L3Harris integrated components made by various partners to form the Optical Telescope Element, which will collect light and provide sharp images of deep space. L3Harris also combined the components of the Integrated Science Instrument Module, which hosts four cameras and spectrographs for gathering data.

L3Harris later administered roughly 100 days of testing in a cryogenic vacuum chamber at Johnson Space Center in Houston to ensure the telescope elements perform in the harsh environment found in space.

While some may have found it challenging to work on one project for some two decades, Whitman said the project involved several distinct phases.

“The job changed as the project progressed,” he said.

He noted he is proud the team was able to meet the unprecedented test requirements for the program and do the work on schedule in a timely manner.

Not only did the team face challenges related to the development of the largest space telescope ever made, but they also had to make sure it could withstand temperatures that registered at 400 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, he explained.

Whitman said that number is well below the lowest temperature commonly used as a benchmark in the cryptogenic industry and close to absolute zero, which is the lowest temperature possible and when atoms stop moving.

“We  definitely knew we had a lot to  figure out and we also the space exploration field and the local operation is hiring for a range of positions, including engineers, knew we would get there,” he said.

As the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will take one month to travel 1.5 million kilometers – or 940,000 miles – to a point in space where it will be balanced between the gravity of the Earth and the sun, NASA reported. The first images from the telescope are expected this summer.

The premier mission is the scientific successor to NASA’s iconic Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, built to complement and further the scientific discoveries of these and other missions.

Webb will be located much farther from Earth than Hubble and will contain a tennis court-sized sun-shade that will keep the telescope cold, which is necessary for viewing infrared light.

The telescope’s technology will explore every phase of cosmic history – from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe, to everything in between. Webb will reveal new and unexpected discoveries and help humanity understand the origins of the universe and our place in it, according to NASA.

“The James Webb Space Telescope represents the ambition that NASA and our partners maintain to propel us forward into the future,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement. “The promise of Webb is not what we know we will discover; it’s what we don’t yet understand or can’t yet fathom about our universe.”

L3Harris is now focused on additional projects in the space exploration field and the local operation is hiring for a range of positions, including engineers, machinists, and technicians.

One such project is the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, a Hubble-sized telescope targeted for launch no later than 2027.

Whitman is the chief systems engineer, optical telescope assembly for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, which will investigate long-standing astronomical mysteries, such as the force behind the universe’s expansion, and search for distant planets beyond our solar system.

The telescope is another tool that will help scientists with space exploration, Whitman noted.

“A lot of science will be learned with this,” he said.

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