Minnesota company develops key component for the James Webb Space Telescope

Sheldahl, a company based out of Northfield, Minnesota, has a decades-long history of developing flexible materials for space. Most recently, it designed and manufactured a key component of the James Webb Space Telescope. 

For more than 10 years, aerospace engineers at Sheldahl have been working to develop a flexible material that can protect the James Webb Space Telescope from the extreme temperatures of space. The material had to be thin, light and durable enough to be folded up and launched into space, then later deployed during the telescope’s orbit. 

"I personally worked on the James Webb Space Telescope for 13 years of my career," Sheldahl Program Manager Clare Sokup said. 

Sokup explains that as the telescope is traveling through space, the side closest to the sun can be as many as 500 degrees warmer than the side of the telescope not facing the sun. The telescope needs to stay at a consistent temperature for the imaging instruments on the telescope to get a clear picture of space. The sun shield has five layers to provide extra protection.  

"The concept is you have the heat of the sun and the cold of deep space and so Sheldahl’s thermal control materials help everything stay at room temperature, so the electronics can work," Sokup said. 

Sokup said she and her team were watching closely in the days between the launch of the telescope and when the sun shield would be deployed in space to make sure everything went according to plan. 

"I’ve had a huge sense of pride being involved with the project, probably the biggest space mission of the decade," Sheldahl engineer Dave Rowe said. 

Rowe explains the sun shields themselves are about as thin as a human hair. The coating they developed on the shields is about 1/100th the thickness of a human hair. Patches of the material are sewn together to make five sun shields, each about as big as a tennis court. 

Even though Rowe says this was a large project for Sheldahl, the company is familiar with space. They’ve been developing flexible material for space crafts since the 1960s. Sheldahl is credited for material on the Apollo 11, the NASA spacecraft that landed on the moon, the Hubble Space Telescope, the predecessor to the James Webb and material on the solar panels and radiators attached to the international space station. 

"Sheldahl thermal materials are on basically everything up there," Sokup said. 

For more information on the James Webb Space Telescope’s sun shield click here.