'Pinnacle of your career': Area companies had hand in powerful space telescope

·2 min read

Jul. 28—Two area businesses have taken their products to astronomical heights — literally.

Corning Inc., based in Keene, and Optical Solutions Inc. in Charlestown contributed to the James Webb Space Telescope that launched this past Christmas.

The telescope is a successor to the Hubble and is NASA's most powerful telescope to date.

It captures images using a Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam), which detects light from the earliest stars, galaxies being formed and even faint objects in other solar systems. The telescope does this by accessing the near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths with unprecedented resolution.

NIRCam includes 90 lenses made by Optical Solutions.

"[We] made every single lens in that thing," said company President Brad Piccirillo.

Piccirillo founded Optical Solutions in 1996, and said he was asked by Lockheed Martin about 20 years ago to work on the project.

With NASA's release of images from the telescope on July 12, Piccirillo called working on the project more than a lifelong achievement.

Marcia Rieke, principal investigator of NIRCam, praised Optical Solutions in a 2010 letter to the company.

"The tolerances on the lenses that [Optical Solutions] has made and tested are unprecedented," she said in the letter, which Piccirillo provided to The Sentinel. "... [Optical Solutions'] optics will record images of the youngest, most distant stars and galaxies ever seen in the Universe as well as images of planets around other stars and regions of star birth in galaxies not yet discovered."

The James Webb Space Telescope also uses instruments made at the Corning manufacturing plant in Keene.

"One thing we can count on is that every image uses the guidance sensor," said Jeff Santman, a senior engineer who led the telescope project at Corning. The company also contributed a slitless spectrograph — an instrument that breaks light into colors for analysis. Santman said the spectograph makes it possible to determine the chemical makeup of objects viewed by the telescope.

He said about 75 to 100 employees from the Keene plant worked on the project from 2004 to 2010.

"We're really pumped," Santman, who has been at Corning for 22 years, said. "First, it's a great honor to see what we worked on here ... it's the pinnacle of your career.

"It's the kind of stuff you tell your grandkids."

Tom Benoit can be reached 352-5993 or tbenoit@keenesentinel.com.