Alumnus Nanavati leads team ensuring seamless communication with newest and most powerful space telescope
More than 25 years in the making, the James Webb Space Telescope ("Webb") blasted into space recently on a one-million-mile journey to reveal the origins of our Universe while capturing the formation of stars and planets in distant galaxies—some of which may be capable of sustaining life.
While much of the attention was focused on the launch site in French Guiana that day, Illinois ECE alumnus Shashvat Nanavati (BSEE '13) and his communications subsystem team were nearly 3,000 miles away in the Mission Operations Center (MOC) in Baltimore, MD, ensuring that critical communications with the NASA-funded satellite were occurring properly.
“We made sure all the commands were received successfully by the spacecraft and all the data and telemetry were sent down to Earth as expected,” said Nanavati, the lead communication subsystem engineer with Northrop Grumman, the flagship observatory’s primary contractor. “We are still looking at data in real-time and supporting the mission from the MOC site.”
Within 3.5 minutes of launch, Nanavati and crew had their first contact with one of the ground stations. They are using three of the antennas that function in the S-band frequencies for command uplink, telemetry downlink, and ranging. They are relying on a fourth antenna, which is in the K-band frequency range, for fast downlink of science data and telemetry.
“From that first contact 3.5 minutes in to launch through the first month, there were a series of comm-related activities where we activated different antennas, ensured proper and continuous communication linkage with the ground stations, and assisted with all other activities, such as the critical sun shield and mirror deployments,” Nanavati said.
The tennis-court-sized sunshield protects the telescope from external sources of light and heat, such as the sun, Earth, and moon, as well as from heat produced by the observatory itself.
Nanavati and his team plan on returning to their Northrop Grumman offices in the Los Angeles area soon once all the communication subsystem hardware has been activated. However, they will remain on call to help NASA engineers and scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland with ongoing operations and support.
Webb will begin collecting data about six months into the mission after all the optics are aligned and the scientific instruments are calibrated. All command, telemetry, and science data will be routed through NASA's Deep Space Network, with three ground stations located in Canberra, Australia, Madrid, Spain, and Goldstone, California.
To ensure successful communications, the comm subsystem team tested its hardware and systems for several years.
“The communication subsystem is critical to Webb’s success,” he said. “To make sure that there is as little risk as possible and everything works as planned, we comprehensively tested and verified all aspects of the communication subsystem hardware.”
Nanavati is convinced that his Illinois ECE education prepared him well for the technical challenges and stress involved in the final testing regimen before the onboard comm hardware was packed up and shipped to the launch site in the fall.
“ECE was a very rigorous program, where there were times when every day felt like a Monday,” said Nanavati, as he recalled meeting project deadlines, taking tests, and generally keeping up with his course work. “The 70-90 hour work weeks in ECE really prepared me for my role on Webb.”
He encourages current ECE students to embrace the ups and downs that come with earning an engineering degree. “I certainly had thoughts about whether all the work I was doing was worth it back then,” he said. “Keep pressing, stay motivated, and keep working hard. The quality of your Illinois ECE education will pay dividends in the future.”