This massive, steerable parabolic dish, which in 1957 tracked the ascent of the rocket that launched Sputnik I into space and is sensitive enough to pick up a ­cellphone call from the ­surface of Mars, may soon be out of the ­astronomy ­business. The dark clouds in the ­picture that hover over the Lovell Radio Telescope, located at the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank Observatory, in England, are ­apropos. Government ­funding for a program that would keep the ­telescope peering into the heavens may soon be slashed. Lovell is a protected landmark, so it won’t be torn down. Instead, the dish could be ­repurposed as a giant movie screen, displaying stars of a different sort than those for which it was originally designed.

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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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