University of Alaska Fairbanks researcher awaits results from James Webb Telescope contributions

Published: Mar. 4, 2022 at 4:31 PM AKST
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Gunther Kletetschka is a University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) Associate Professor who, along with many other minds, collaborated to bring about NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

According to Kletetschka, his involvement began with a discussion on a magnet problem that NASA was having.

“It’s always because I know about magnets and magnetism.” Kletetschka explained. “There was a meeting at Goddard Space Flight Center and I happened to be at that meeting, and they were just saying, ‘Oh, we have this problem. We have this magnet which we are trying to open these micro shutters, but it’s not working because the magnet has to be too close and it’s damaging all that very thin layer of little lithography propagation.’ So and then I looked at it and said, ‘Hmm, you are using a six pole magnet, and that’s why you have to be so close. We have to use a dipole or quadrupole magnet,’ and that was the issue. I was able to replace the design that they had with the design that was allowed too to do the same work but with the larger [magnet] from a larger distance - and as soon as I was able to show that I can do that they started to say, ‘You have to work with us because we need you.’”

Over the course of several years, every aspect of the telescope was tested to ensure that it would be able to function despite the harsh environment in the vacuum of space.

“It was many years of work,” Kletetschka elaborated. “It started with the magnet. Then we thought, ‘Hmm, we have to open it at low temperature, not that we can do it at room temperature. But what if we do it at low temperature?’ So we dropped everything. It was very close to 50° Kelvin above absolute zero. Once we did that, the magnet I was experimenting with suddenly was not working. The magnet has some kind of a transition, and its magnetization was just weakening as soon as we lowered the temperature down. This magnet was from neodymium, which is a weird earth element. So I was thinking about it and neodymium, but there’s another material called praseodymium and there’s only one proton difference. Maybe the proton would do the trick and would not do that transitioning like the neodymium did. Once I did that, it showed perfect. In addition it was actually increasing rather than decreasing... neodymium was decreasing but the praseodymium magnet was increasing. So it was another victory that we were able to show we have a better magnet that works even better at low temperature than at room temperature.”

During this process, those working on the telescope followed a rigorous system of checks and balances to ensure the success of the project according to Kletetschka. “You cannot imagine the testing we had to do with that thing. Everything was like a double check. Every material was tested. There was a procedure that was like a thousand-page procedure that we had to we had to create, and the people who are making it had to follow the procedure. Then everyone has to be in a clean room and do it every day [with] the mask and everything because it’s very delicate instrument where you don’t have any dust falling on the surfaces.

Kletetschka concluded by saying, “The most memorable thing was this writing the procedure. That was the toughest part - doing it over and over every week the same way, and then showing it to the managers that this is how it should be done.”

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