James Webb Space Telescope’s Powerful Eyes NIRCam Will Help See the Universe in a Whole New Light

The largest, most powerful space telescope ever built – NASA’s Webb Space Telescope – has revealed what our universe looked like 13.5 billion years ago, when the first stars and galaxies took shape after the Big Bang.

Capturing those “first light” images will be the exquisitely precise Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), one of the most sensitive infrared cameras ever built. 

Engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Center (ATC) in Palo Alto, California, designed, assembled and tested NIRCam, which will serve as the primary imager aboard the Webb as it travels 1 million miles into space. NIRCam is an infrared imager measuring wavelengths of light from 0.6 to 5 microns. It was created to detect the earliest star clusters and galaxies, as well as stars in nearby galaxies and young stars in the Milky Way and objects in the Kuiper Belt. 

The launch of Webb on Dec. 25, 2021 represents a project nearly two decades in the making. NIRCam started out in 2002, when the ATC won the contract to create the imager for principal investigator Marcia Rieke of the University of Arizona.

Lockheed Martin’s Alison Nordt was there from the beginning, starting with structural analysis for NIRCam, through duties as program manager, and now as principal engineer. “When I first came to the NIRCam program, I was just a couple years out of graduate school, a newly minted Ph.D. (in aeronautics and astronautics) eager to work on this giant space telescope,” she recalls. “I've grown up on NIRCam.”

The journey wasn’t easy at times. “I’ve been through all the bumps, challenges and triumphs along the way,” Alison says. Now, she and current Program Manager Malcolm Ferry are anxious to see NIRCam open its eyes on the universe in the months following the launch.

“We’re looking forward to all the glorious science it will create,” Malcolm says. 

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