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NASA preps vintage vacuum testing chamber for next-generation space telescope

NASA’s famous “Chamber A” thermal vacuum testing chamber has been upgraded and remodeled to assist with testing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), according to a space agency news release. The JWST is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope that is scheduled for a 2018 launch date. Webb will search for the first galaxies that formed in the early Universe, linking the Big Bang to our own Milky Way galaxy.

When NASA engineers were designing the JWST, they had to ensure that there was a place large enough to accommodate testing it. Considering the size of the next-generation space telescope, engineers determined that Chamber A in the thermal-vacuum test facility at the space agency’s Johnson Space Center would be a perfect fit.

According to NASA, Chamber A is now the biggest high-vacuum, cryogenic-optical test chamber in the world. Chamber A was also used during the Apollo missions. Chamber A tested the space capsules for the Apollo missions with and without the mission crew. It is 55 feet in diameter by 90 feet tall. The door weighs 40 tons and has to be opened and closed hydraulically.

NASA engineers have spent the last three years building and remodeling the chamber interior for the temperature needed to test the JWST. The space telescope’s testing phase will help engineers determine whether all of its science instrument systems will perform correctly in the cold temperatures of space.

“Some of the things we’ve done is upgraded our helium system, our liquid nitrogen system, and air flow management,” said Virginia Rivas-Yancy, project manager, Air Flow Management System at NASA Johnson, in a statement.

Engineers have modified Chamber A so it can drop down to -439.9 Fahrenheit, which is 11 degrees above absolute zero.

“The air in the chamber weighs 25 tons, about 12 1/2 Volkswagen Beetles; when all the air is removed the mass left inside will be the equivalent of half of a staple,” said Ryan Grogan, Webb Telescope Chamber A project engineer at NASA Johnson, in a statement.

NASA officials note that the test itself will take 90 days. It will take 30 days for Chamber A to cool down, several weeks to run tests on JWST’s operating systems and the rest of the time to heat the chamber back up to room temperature.

Engineers will fold and wheel the JWST into the Chamber A, according to the space agency.

You can learn more about Chamber A here.

Photo credit: NASA Johnson.