Engineering Alumni Help NASA Check Out the James Webb Space Telescope

Hubble telescope team members
Tim Marinone '12, far left, Chris Nonis ’13, second from right, and Dave Cloutier ‘10, not in the photo, were part of the ATA Engineering team that tested the James Webb Space Telescope inside Northrop Grumman’s clean room facility in California in 2015.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

On Dec. 25, 2021, the largest, most powerful and most expensive space telescope ever built was launched aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in South America.

Hailed as the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope will help astronomers unlock the deepest secrets of the cosmos. Its ultrasensitive infrared detectors will probe the earliest galaxies, which formed shortly after the Big Bang some 13.8 billion years ago, to understand the creation and evolution of our universe.

The 7-ton telescope — named after the NASA administrator during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1960s — features a primary mirror measuring 22 feet in diameter, nearly three times wider than Hubble’s.

Thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, as well as from dozens of academic and industry partners, worked on the Webb telescope, which took more than two decades to design, build and test at a cost of $10 billion.

Among them were three mechanical engineering alumni — Dave Cloutier ’10, Tim Marinone ’12 and Chris Nonis ’13 — who work at ATA Engineering, a leading aerospace structural dynamics consulting firm based in San Diego, California.

Marinone is a test group engineer and quality manager at ATA, while Cloutier and Nonis are senior project engineer and test engineer, respectively. The trio was part of the team from ATA and Northrop Grumman, NASA’s primary contractor, that conducted dynamic testing of Webb’s telescope structure in 2015, at Northrop’s facility in Redondo Beach, California.

Since Webb will be orbiting the sun a million miles from Earth, everything has to work perfectly, just as planned. Unlike Hubble, which was repaired and upgraded five times by space shuttle astronauts, Webb will lie beyond the reach of any existing spacecraft. That is why testing the telescope on the ground prior to launch was so important.

“Our test was crucial, since it identified important dynamic characteristics of the telescope structure that supports the optics during stowed and deployed configurations, and it validated the system’s finite element model as part of NASA’s flight certification process,” says Marinone.

According to Marinone, identifying these characteristics provided increased confidence for the next dynamic test that was performed—shaking the entire telescope structure to make sure it can withstand the vibrations and stresses of launch. The tests were successfully completed, and Webb’s technical issues were identified and addressed.

“It was an honor for us to be part of such a technologically complex and one-of-a-kind telescope project,” he says.

Webb Telescope
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is shown fully deployed in orbit in this artist’s rendering.
Aside from the Webb telescope, the alums are also working to support numerous NASA projects, including the Artemis mission to the moon and Mars, the International Space Station, and the Mars rovers and space probes from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“This is a great time to be in the space industry,” Marinone says.

A Solid Foundation

Marinone, Cloutier and Nonis credit the knowledge and training they received at UMass Lowell’s Structural Dynamics and Acoustic Systems Laboratory (SDASL) in helping them prepare for careers in the aerospace industry. The lab, located at Shah Hall on North Campus, is co-directed by Profs. Peter Avitabile and Christopher Niezrecki.

“SDASL combined hands-on experience with a solid theoretical foundation, skills that we now apply to our work every day,” says Marinone. “Working on a wide range of multidisciplinary projects as we do requires both broad and in-depth knowledge as well as the ability to work together, all of which we learned directly from our graduate experiences in the lab. All of the basic underlying tests and analysis methodologies we needed to test the Webb telescope were part of our master’s degree coursework at UMass Lowell’s structural dynamics program.”

He adds, “ATA has hired several students from SDASL due to the quality of the coursework and the research they did in the lab.”