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Replacement for Hubble Space Telescope Will Use Copper-based Communications Systems

Optical fiber interconnects not yet good enough for James Webb Space Telescope, but SpaceWire standard is.

4 min read
Image: NASA

14 January--NASA has opted for copper over optical fiber for connecting components in the next-generation space telescope. In a situation somewhat akin to telecom operators' widespread use of DSL technology instead of fiber optics for broadband service, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will use advanced twisted-pair technology to bridge instruments and electronic components across it's tennis-court-size frame, according to NASA.

NASA engineers say optical-fiber interconnect technology is still not up to the challenges of space. ”Fiber-optics drivers and receivers aren't at a state where the space industry can utilize them,” says Mark Voyton, data-handling systems manager for the JWST. ”However, I expect future generations to be fiber.”

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Two men fix metal rods to a gold-foiled satellite component in a warehouse/clean room environment

Technicians at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems facilities in Redondo Beach, Calif., work on a mockup of the JWST spacecraft bus—home of the observatory’s power, flight, data, and communications systems.


For a deep dive into the engineering behind the James Webb Space Telescope, see our collection of posts here.

When the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) reveals its first images on 12 July, they will be the by-product of carefully crafted mirrors and scientific instruments. But all of its data-collecting prowess would be moot without the spacecraft’s communications subsystem.

The Webb’s comms aren’t flashy. Rather, the data and communication systems are designed to be incredibly, unquestionably dependable and reliable. And while some aspects of them are relatively new—it’s the first mission to use Ka-band frequencies for such high data rates so far from Earth, for example—above all else, JWST’s comms provide the foundation upon which JWST’s scientific endeavors sit.

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