The Company Behind the James Webb Space Telescope

Written by Jason Simpkins
Posted July 15, 2022

All week long, we’ve had the privilege of gazing deeper into the kaleidoscope of space than any generation before. 

Cosmic cliffs, sparkling galaxies, gleaming stars, distant planets, and even evidence of water and clouds… It’s all on display in the first images to be relayed from the James Webb Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope in history. It boasts better resolution, finer detail, greater reach, and a larger collecting area than its predecessor, the Hubble.

The result is the deepest and sharpest infrared images of the distant universe so far. 

James Webb Universe

Webb’s first shots come from a galaxy cluster known as SMACS 0723 — a pocket of space teeming with thousands of galaxies, some more than 13 billion years old.

And despite the vastness of the shots, the image covered is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length.

Of course, as marvelous as these images are, it’s just as important to not lose sight of the tremendous technological achievement this is. 

Remember, this is the most advanced, revolutionary telescope to be built since Galileo set Dutch glass into a metal tube.

And what we’re seeing now is the culmination of decades of work and a months-long journey from Earth to the Webb’s observation point.

You see, the Webb telescope was launched from French Guiana on December 25. 

From there, an Ariane 5 rocket ferried the telescope to Lagrange Point 2 (L2) almost a million miles away from Earth. 

L2 is a very specific location about 1 million miles directly behind the Earth as viewed from the sun. This places the telescope roughly four times farther away from the Earth than the moon ever gets.

The spot was chosen because it’s ideal for Webb’s task. Placed here, the telescope doesn’t orbit the Earth, which would obstruct its view and subject the sensitive instruments to dramatic levels of heat and frigidity. 

Instead, at L2, the telescope is dragged around the sun at the same rate as the Earth. The position also keeps the telescope’s temperature low while catching enough sunlight to fuel its solar panels.

Of course, that unique position provides a challenge of its own. 

That is, the instrument side of the telescope, facing away from the sun, is cloaked in frigid darkness, so the sun’s heat doesn’t interfere with its infrared scans of ancient galaxies. 

But the other side, facing the sun, must deflect temperatures as hot as 230 degrees Fahrenheit and power the telescope’s mechanics. 

This was the primary challenge of the telescope’s construction but one company was able to solve the problem. 

And that company was none other than Northrop Grumman (NYSE: NOC), the James Webb’s primary contractor.

James Webb NOC

The Cryocooler and Sunshield

Northrop Grumman is responsible for all the mirrors, solar panels, and the platform of the James Webb, as the telescope was pieced together inside the company’s Redondo Beach facility.

But its two biggest accomplishments were the cryocooler and sunshield.

The cryocooler acts as a refrigerator for the telescope’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), cooling it to a temperature below 7 kelvins, or negative 447 degrees Fahrenheit.

This is crucial to the infrared capability that lets the telescope detect imperceptibly faint objects throughout the universe and see through clouds of gas and dust. It also allows it to study the chemical signatures of planet atmospheres.

This is something of a specialty for Northrop Grumman, which has delivered over 50 space flight cryocoolers with an accumulated 300 years of combined on-orbit operations. 

The sunshield, however, was a bit more complicated.

Take a look at this thing…

James Webb Sunshield

It’s the size of a tennis court. You can’t just attach it to a rocket and send it off into space.

Instead, the sunshield had to be stacked into five layers (each as thin as a human hair) and then extracted from the rocket after it reached L2 via a pulley system. And it had to happen with enough precision to protect the telescope’s mirrors and instruments from light emanating from the sun, Earth and moon.

The same is true of the mirrors, which were folded into the 16-foot rocket fairing origami-style and then deployed from the capsule upon arrival at L2. In that way, the 18 hexagonal sections measuring 21 feet in diameter combined to form a single mirror. 

That feat of engineering is why we’re able to enjoy these first-of-their kind images today. 

Now, Northrop Grumman has been in my Wall Street's Proving Ground portfolio since February. And in that time, it's gone up 22.5%. That's pretty good when you consider the Dow has slumped 16% since the start of the year and the S&P 500 is down more than 20%. Meanwhile, another defense contractor I recommended is up 50% year to date and 85% since I tipped off subscribers.

Obviously, there's more to this than just space programs, which are rapidly expanding in number and scale. It has to do with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the likelihood that China will eventually launch an attack of its own.

And that's why I've launched a service that specializes in tracking the defense industry through government disclosures, patent filings, and insider contacts. It's called Secret Stock Files, and I send out monthly video recommendations discussing all of these technologies and more.

Our first company makes augmented reality displays for fighter pilots. You can find out more about that here.

Make sure to check it out if you haven't already.

Fight on,

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Jason Simpkins

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Jason Simpkins is Assistant Managing Editor of the Outsider Club and Investment Director of Wall Street's Proving Ground, a financial advisory focused on security companies and defense contractors. For more on Jason, check out his editor's page. 

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