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Northrop Grumman, NASA Lab See Progress On NASA Telescope System

By | November 20, 2006

      Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory completed key technology milestones on a telescope system that will peer through the heavens seeking Earth-like planets, Northrop announced.

      The Space Interferometry Mission (SIM) PlanetQuest program, which also will measure distances to the stars, scored several advances.

      PlanetQuest completed rigorous tests of ultra-precise technologies, demonstrating that they achieved the maturity to meet mission goals and will be ready for a preliminary design review within twelve months.

      Technical maturity in the program provides the capability to support a launch early in the next decade.

      “NASA mandated mission technology milestones have been validated by teams of independent experts and we’re ready to move forward beyond the technology development phase and toward supporting the president’s vision for space exploration,” said Mike Herriage, Northrop Grumman Space Technology SIM program manager. “SIM is ready to enter its next phase, implementation and flight.”

      He referred to the vision propounded by President Bush for U.S. manned space flights to the moon no later than 2020, and thence to Mars and beyond.

      PlanetQuest will search for Earth-like planets around nearby stars and measure their masses.

      This search will extend to many kinds of stars, old and young, bright and dim. It will measure the mass and brightness of stars with extreme precision, allowing astronomers to conduct stringent tests to help improve understanding of how stars shine.

      PlanetQuest will trace the paths of the mysterious ‘tidal tails’ of stars in dwarf galaxies that orbit the Milky Way, home galaxy of Earth. These gossamer tails trace the history and future evolution of the galaxy, Northrop noted.

      The eight mission technology milestones were set by NASA, which required their completion before the flight instrument construction begins. Each milestone meant creating breakthrough systems for nanometer control technology and picometer knowledge technology — systems that enable the space telescope to make extremely accurate measurements.

      Achievement of this level of precision means PlanetQuest engineers and scientists have invented methods to accurately measure position distance changes due to vibration and temperature changes in increments of a fraction of the width of a hydrogen atom, according to Northrop.

      Multiple, precise measurements are needed to detect planets of mass similar to Earth.

      “We can now make the long-awaited statement that ‘SIM technology is in hand,'” said Herriage. “We may still face the traditional hurdles that challenge all space projects — constraints of mass, power, schedules, and limited budgets — but these are challenges for good engineering, not the invention of new technology.”

      The SIM PlanetQuest spacecraft will fly three parallel visible light Michelson interferometry telescopes mounted on a Northrop Grumman-built Precision Structure Subsystem (PSS). The interferometers will combine or “interfere” light waves collected by two or more telescopes to achieve far greater resolution than would be possible with a single telescope.

      The 9 meter long (29.5 feet) optical interferometers aboard PlanetQuest will demonstrate this technology in space for the first time.

      Northrop Grumman Space Technology is the JPL industry partner for spacecraft development and assembly, test and launch operations and brings expertise in thermal control, vibration isolation damping, and high precision structures. JPL, the lead NASA center for mission definition, development and integration, is responsible for the telescope development and has expertise in interferometric telescopes and NASA science mission management.

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