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NASA Orders a Powerful New Space Observatory

Aerospace: TRW wins an $825-million contract for a telescope to be built in the Southland.

September 11, 2002|PETER PAE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRW Inc. was selected by NASA on Tuesday to build a new space telescope, a high-profile scientific project that represents an endorsement of Southern California's leadership in the space industry.

The new observatory--to be 10 times more powerful than the existing Hubble Space Telescope it will replace--will allow astronomers to peer deeper into the cosmos than ever before.

Scientists hope to use the capability to understand what happened after the big bang that created the universe.

TRW engineers have designed a telescope that will orbit the sun about a million miles from Earth. Rather than a single mirror, the new telescope will have 36 mirrors forming a single 20-foot-diameter array.

Although the $825-million contract is not large by aerospace industry standards, it is among the most prestigious programs in the space business. TRW would build the telescope at its Redondo Beach plant, which has 9,000 employees.

"Besides the space station, it's probably NASA's biggest scientific project for the next 10 years," said Marco Caceres, senior space analyst for Teal Group, an aerospace research firm in Fairfax, Va.

In the last three months, TRW has won three major satellite programs and in recent years other Southern California firms have several awards that have further solidified the region's role in the space industry.

The importance of the TRW award is reflected in the achievements of the Hubble, launched in 1990 into an orbit 375 miles above Earth.

It has provided stunning photographs of galaxies and insights into the beginning of the universe.

TRW's next-generation space telescope is expected to replace Hubble by 2010 and provide what scientists hope will be clues to how galaxies formed.

In awarding the contract, NASA officials named the telescope after James E. Webb, who directed the Apollo missions that eventually landed the first astronauts on the moon.

TRW beat Lockheed Martin Corp. for the contract. The entire program is expected to cost $1.3 billion, including future contracts for electronic sensors.

NASA hopes to keep the cost well under the $2-billion price tag for Hubble, which has operated for 12 years and is expected to last 10 more years.

The telescope is designed to last five years, though NASA hopes to be able to extend its lifespan.

The company anticipates hiring 400 engineers for the project.

In the last year, TRW has won several major government contracts.

Two weeks ago, the company won the largest satellite production contract in its history, a $6.5-billion program to build a new fleet of primary weather-monitoring satellites for joint military and civil use.

Just a three months earlier, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency selected TRW to oversee a $6-billion satellite system to track enemy ballistic missiles.

"This is probably one of TRW's best years ever," Caceres said. "I can't recall a year where they have won so many major contracts in a relatively short time, and they've basically beaten the industry leaders in doing it."

Cleveland-based TRW is in the process of being acquired by Northrop Grumman Corp., which has its headquarters in Century City.

The TRW contracts add to work underway at Boeing Co. facilities in El Segundo and Seal Beach where the company is developing supersecret spy satellites for the Pentagon, which intelligence analysts estimate could be worth up to $25 billion over two decades.

Boeing's El Segundo complex is the world's largest commercial satellite maker.

In addition to TRW and Boeing, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena produces the nation's deep space probes.

Aerospace analysts said the TRW project is "pushing the scientific envelop in several different ways," including placing a spacecraft in a permanent orbit around the sun.

After its launch on an expendable rocket, probably Lockheed Martin's new Atlas V, the spacecraft will take three months to reach its destination about 940,000 miles from Earth.

Positioned at so-called second Lagrange Point, the spacecraft will be able to literally hover in space, balanced between the gravity of the sun and Earth.

Once in position, the spacecraft will unfurl a sun shade about the size of a tennis court.

A fiber shield will protect the mirrors from the light and heat of both the sun and the Earth.

The infrared sensors will be cooled to very low temperatures without the use of complicated refrigeration equipment, NASA said.

"It's not like Hubble at all," said Charles Vick, chief space policy analyst for the Federation of American Scientists. "The design approach is very, very unique, and frankly I don't comprehend it myself."

Shielded from light, the telescope will be able to detect with more precision and clarity the first objects to emerge after the big bang, NASA said. Some of the objects date back 12 billion to 13 billion years but astronomers aren't quite sure what these objects might be.

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