Keep the James Webb Space Telescope Launch on Track

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Helping Keep the James Webb Space Telescope Launch on Track

In a crunch, COM DEV, the company responsible for a key guidance system component of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, relied on a member of Design 1st's electronics engineering team to troubleshoot and repair a crippling control system problem.

In October 2018, NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency are set to launch the James Webb Space Telescope.

Billed as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will be the most complex and powerful telescope ever built. It will be able to see through dust clouds which absorb visible light, helping scientists to see further back in time.

Orbiting a million miles from the Earth and using a viewing area that is seven times larger than Hubble, JWST will capture the infrared signals from the first stars and galaxies over 13.5 billion years ago.
james-webb-space-telescope-how-it-works
Crucial to Webb’s success is a Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS), a means of positioning the telescope that will orient it for target acquisition and provide image stabilization during scientific observations. COM DEV International Ltd. was contracted in 2001 to begin development of the hardware and software for Webb’s FGS.

COM DEV had experience contributing to over 950 satellite projects, but this was still an enormous task, and a failure to deliver would set back the entire Webb project.
Late-stage space simulation tests uncover a crippling problem.
Unfortunately, late-stage tests in 2013 uncovered serious problems with the FGS’ control system. When the hardware was tested in space-simulating conditions (these were as cold as -240°C), some scenarios caused the system to lock up and behave inconsistently.

The problem was critical and it threatened to delay the entire launch of the JWST.

The software inconsistencies had to be quickly diagnosed and fixed, written into new Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) integrated circuits, and then re-installed into the FGS system. System verification testing would also have to be redone, costing over $1M and slowing down the parallel development of other systems.

And if replacing the FGPAs caused any damage to the host circuit boards, it would create delays which would be disastrous for the whole JWST program.
JWST-FPGA-board-FGS-system
In searching for a solution, COM DEV engaged Design 1st. VP of electronics Peter Cottreau to troubleshoot the issue and recommend a solution. Acting quickly, Peter:
  • Diagnosed the problem and proposed changes to 3,000 lines of FPGA code
  • Convinced NASA the changes would completely resolve all issues
  • Created a test framework to verify the changes were effective
As of March 6, 2016, with successful completion of instrument testing, the telescope is officially optically complete.

"This is the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people who have been working for many, many years," said Jamie Dunn, NASA's Integrated Science Instrument Module Manager. "This final test was phenomenal, everything is working spectacularly well."

The James Webb Space Telescope is currently scheduled to launch from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket in October 2018.


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