NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), known for its impressive astronomical observations, also significantly contributes to everyday life through spinoff technologies. One of the latest developments involves enhancements to simulation software that originated from the JWST project. This software, Ansys Zemax OpticStudio, was initially designed to simulate the JWST’s behavior in space-like conditions.
The JWST’s primary mirror consists of 18 hexagonal mirrors, making it the largest space mirror ever launched. Before its launch, this mirror had to be folded into a rocket and deployed in space, unfolding like origami. To prepare for this complex deployment, software improvements were required to test and fine-tune the intricate robotics involved.
“We pushed everything, all the simulation, just as hard as it would go,” said Erin Elliott of Ansys. Developers not only tweaked the software but also improved its compatibility with Microsoft Windows programs, allowing for more customization. The JWST’s unique demands drove these software enhancements.
Future space telescopes, particularly those that need remote deployment and assembly, are likely to incorporate elements of the JWST’s design. NASA has already considered the benefits of launching telescope components separately and assembling them in space. Such modular designs reduce overall mission costs and enhance flexibility in responding to anomalies during deployment.
The advancements in software developed for the JWST are now finding applications beyond astronomy. They are being used for better designs of medical inspection instruments like endoscopes and thermal imagers used to identify COVID-19 exposures in crowded environments. These real-world applications highlight the far-reaching impact of space technology on various fields.
As Joseph Howard of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center noted, “The next great observatory will be even more dependent on modeling software.” The continuous development and application of these technologies are driving innovation in space exploration and benefiting life on Earth in unexpected ways.