Cryocooler Technology

Northrop Grumman
Falls Church, VA

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, built in partnership with Northrop Grumman Corporation, is one step closer to being fully commissioned. Enabled by Northrop Grumman cryocooler technology, the system has cooled the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) to its operational cryogenic temperature, a critical step toward first science.

“Reaching MIRI’s operational temperature is a major step toward science and all the astounding discoveries Webb will uncover for years to come,” said Charlie Atkinson, chief engineer, James Webb Space Telescope, Northrop Grumman. “The success of this remarkable milestone is a testament to the dedication of engineers and scientists and the many years of practice.”

Webb’s cryocooler is an advanced machine that operates as an internal refrigerator to establish and maintain the right cryogenic temperature for the MIRI. The cryocooler keeps sensors extremely cold so the MIRI can observe the skies and capture light from billions of years ago. To date, Northrop Grumman has delivered over 50 space flight cryocoolers with an accumulated 300 years of combined on-orbit operations.

Webb’s suite of scientific instruments, MIRI included, spent the last three months passively cooling off in deep space to 90 kelvin – minus 298 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 183 degrees Celsius – with the help of Webb’s massive sunshield. The size of a tennis court, the sunshield protects the telescope from light and heat emitted from the sun, Earth and Moon, and the observatory itself. Last week, Webb’s MIRI reached its operating cryogenic temperature of below seven kelvin, which is minus 448 degrees Fahrenheit or minus 266 degrees Celsius.

Taking Webb from the drawing board and making it a reality was the result of a collaborative effort among NASA, international partners, and industry. As the largest, most complex, and powerful space telescope ever built, Webb required 10 technological inventions, including revolutionary optics, detectors and MIRI’s advanced cryocooler.

Northrop Grumman leads the industry team for the program and NASA heads an international partnership that includes both the European Space Agency and Canadian Space Agency. Goddard Space Flight Center manages the Webb Telescope project, and the Space Telescope Science Institute is responsible for science and mission operations, as well as ground station development.

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