Middle Georgia College students, faculty work on space telescope

EASTMAN — Students and faculty at Middle Georgia College’s aviation campus have an important mission: assembling parts for a NASA telescope, which will be launched to a point in space nearly 1 million miles from Earth.

Eight students and two faculty members from the Department of Aircraft Structural Technology are working on the “baffle,” a part that captures heat and directs it out of the spacecraft and the radiator, which radiates heat off the instruments, said Rick Krontz, the department’s chairman.

The James Webb Space Telescope will operate at 375 degrees below zero, so thermal control of the device is important to its ability to function, he said.

“It’s very critical,” Frank Huber, composites engineer for Maryland-based Genesis Engineering Solutions, a contractor for the project, said of the college’s role. “If these parts don’t work, then the observatory doesn’t work.”

The space telescope, an international collaboration of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, is expected to launch in 2013 and replace the smaller, nearer-to-Earth Hubble Space Telescope that currently orbits the planet.

The Webb telescope will sit in a relatively fixed point in space. It will use infrared technology and a 6.5-meter (about 7 yards) primary mirror to study the Big Bang Theory, the creation of stars and formation of galaxies, Krontz said. The mission is expected to last five to 10 years, he said.

“It’s going to go a million miles out, and we’re never going to touch it again,” he said.

The space telescope is expected to cost $1 billion to build and is part of a $3 billion space program. The college is receiving $35,000 for the project to pay for interns, utilities and some supplies, Krontz said. Genesis Engineering, which oversees the college’s work, pays for the more expensive materials, he said.

Leftover money will be donated to the Middle Georgia College Foundation, Krontz said.

Middle Georgia College got involved with the project through Huber at Genesis. Huber met Krontz and Paul Parker, an aircraft structural technology instructor at the college, about three years ago at a previous job in Florida.

When Huber joined Genesis, he thought of Middle Georgia College for the project, he said.

“We were looking for people who had the facilities and resources and the basic knowledge,” Huber said. “These particular parts (the college is assembling) seem to fit right in their capability.”

The college began work on the space telescope last November and the project is expected to be complete by April 30, Krontz said.

A NASA quality control representative has been to the college to assess the project and ensure that students and faculty follow protocol. “We’re number nine in the top 10 NASA list for critical development of parts, so they’ve got their eye on us,” Krontz said.

The college also has gotten local industries involved. Heart of Georgia Metal Crafters in Eastman will do the necessary machining — drilling, cutting and trimming, and Dynamic Paint Solutions, also in Eastman, will handle the metals processing, Krontz said.

The project gives Middle Georgia College credibility in the industry, Krontz said, and officials said they hope it leads to additional projects in the future. At least one already is in the works.

Not only does the Genesis and NASA partnership benefit the college, but it also benefits the students, said DeAnn Nester, division chairwoman for aviation technology at the college.

Students are involved directly and indirectly, including project management and quality control, and are able to see a project from start to finish, Nester said. William Barnes, a student intern, said it feels great to be a part of such an important project.

“You learn everything in the classroom, and then you get hands-on experience here,” said Barnes, who is earning a Bachelor of Science degree in aviation management with a concentration in logistics. As an intern, he helps oversee other students working on the project.

“It’s not often you can get an opportunity like this,” he said.

Jeb Staples, another aviation student intern, said the project is helping students prepare for everyday work.

“We built a full quality manual that NASA had to approve. … When you apply for a job, (experience is) the first thing they ask you,” he said.

To contact writer Jennifer Burk, call 744-4345.