Pictured is engineering science professor Ash Parameswaran and lead researcher from SFU in the early exploration of miniature shutter technology.

The SFU connection to the James Webb Space Telescope

December 22, 2021

When NASA’s latest space apparatus—the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)— blasts into space on December 25, 2021, you can bet that a team of SFU engineering science researchers who collaborated on telescope research two decades ago will be watching.

More than 20 years ago, SFU professors Ash Parameswaran, Marek Syrzycki and then graduate student Shivalik Bakshi were invited to work on a research project initiated by Dr. David Crampton of Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics Research Centre (HAA) of Victoria, BC. The SFU team’s role was to explore a prototype shutter mechanism for NASA’s Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST).

Fast-forward to today, the work done by SFU group became one of the early explorations for what would become the JWST instrument, scheduled for launch this week.

Worth nearly $10 billion, the world’s most powerful telescope is a predecessor to NASA’s Hubble telescope, which has been capturing views of outer space since 1990.

In 1999, Parameswaran and his team were tapped by Crampton to be part of exploratory work on the NGST, after NASA recruited space agencies from Canada and French Guiana to help with the process. Headed by Crampton, HAA led a group of about 20 university and college students and their professors, who played a significant role in helping the Canadian Space Agency showcase Canadian expertise and experience.

While the SFU design is not part of the current system, the HAA has acknowledged that SFU’s early explorative studies helped to finalize their design used in the JWST.

“I don’t think any of us could imagine then just how far the technology would go,” says Parameswaran, an SFU engineering science professor. "It was an amazing experience for the students, who've since gone on to great careers in the field."

The team worked on the telescope’s micro-shutter technology. The shutter acts like a camera shutter, which opens and closes according to the exposure information given to it. JWST uses an array of micro-shutters— more than 250,000, each the size of a few human hairs, to ensure illumination—and can selectively expose a single astronomical object at a time.

“More than twenty years ago, our team was brainstorming how to do this, and one of my graduate students tried out a small related project,” recalls Parameswaran. “It’s amazing to see this evolution.”

The mission has already been aborted several times but since the telescope has now been positioned on the launch site, its planned December 25, 2021 blast off looks promising.

Using its revolutionary technology, the JWST will study "every phase of cosmic history," directly observe parts of space never before seen and be a powerful tool for studying planets and other bodies in our solar system.