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One (Small) Phone Call, One Giant Telescope for Humankind


The call came in at 4:55pm on a Friday – never a good sign. The customer was part of the NASA team that was diligently working to get the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) properly tested in advance of its launch. The voice on the other end of the phone got my attention. “This is urgent! We've got a problem down here in the clean room. The power has been knocked out by the hurricane, and we're running on generators.”

“This is urgent! We've got a problem down here in the clean room. The power has been knocked out by the hurricane, and we're running on generators.”

The gentleman went on to explain the need for temporary IDL® licenses that would work on a high-side network. “If we can't get IDL up and running on the temporary system, we can't complete the needed tests in time.” Just in case I missed the urgency, he added “We have no idea how long we'll be able to last in this storm."

The storm was Hurricane Harvey, a category-4 hurricane ravaging Houston. The eye never directly hit Houston as anticipated, but it hung over the city, barraging it with 40 inches of rain over a short period of time. The support team had been monitoring the storm via Helios®, which my colleague Ben Castellani, a meteorologist, had open on his desktop. Where cameras were online, we could see the devastation as it occurred. Where cameras were knocked offline, we knew the storm damage was probably the greatest. From our Broomfield, CO office, the situation appeared grim, and the tone of the customer's voice confirmed it.

At 4:55 that Friday, I was one of only a few folks still in the office. Luckily one of the others was Jim Uba, our support team’s Jedi. "Jim?... I can't believe I'm saying this - it's NASA in Houston, and they have a problem." We both couldn't help but chuckle at the pop-culture reference, but we both immediately went to work building the IDL licenses the customer urgently needed. At that time, it was a highly manual process, and we were lucky Jim was there. I was able to walk the customer through the install and NASA continued its testing on the JWST, which from the release of the first images a few weeks ago, was a remarkable success!

Including our small yet mighty support team, there have been many people involved in the success of the JWST. Ball Aerospace was one of the teams that helped build JWST. A scientist from Ball who visited our office to explain IDL's role in the mission explained they were “trying to peer back in time, to see the origins of our universe.” The galaxies we are seeing in JWST imagery are over 13 billion light years away, meaning it took 13 BILLION years for that light to reach the point at where it strikes the sensor. Earth is aged at 4.54 billion years (plus or minus a cool 50 million), meaning we are receiving imagery from a time long before our planet and any of its inhabitants even existed!

For a sensor to gather such faint light from so long ago, the telescope's mirrors had to be exceptionally large and sensitive. As JWST was quite large in comparison to its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, it needed to be folded to fit within a comparably tiny launch vehicle and after reaching its destination, remotely unpacked and the mirrors calibrated.

Dr. Scott Acton, the Wavefront Sensing and Controls Scientist at Ball, and his team used IDL to solve the problem of unfolding and calibrating the primary mirror, comprised of 18 segments of lightweight beryllium, spanning 6.5 meters! By comparison, Hubble's mirror is only 2.4 meters. Ball used an application written in IDL to help with this unfolding and mirror calibration.

My college advisor at the University of Colorado, Dr. Waleed Abdalati, who had also been the Chief Scientist at NASA, had once said to me: "Jen, no job is too small - it takes a whole team of people to get to a solution, and every single person plays a part in the success of that mission, no matter their role." So, whether it’s calibrating mirrors or jumping into the eye of the storm to deliver IDL licenses to keep testing on track, every completed task moved the JWST mission one step closer to success. I felt those words ring true that Friday night after we delivered IDL licenses in a crunch. I had that same experience after seeing the imagery coming off the JWST a few weeks ago, knowing that the sharpness of the data was due in some small part to IDL. I feel honored to have been even a tiny part of such a phenomenal achievement.


Jenny Bloom is an Account Representative at NV5 Geospatial and was previously part of the Technical Support team.







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