MIDDLETOWN, Pa. (WHTM) — It looks like a roll of unraveled dental floss, but white ultralight insulated wiring is among the material enabling the best-ever look at the beginning of time.
And it was designed partly in central Pennsylvania.
First: Sure, ultralight… But who cares about the detail that it’s white?
Because when as many things have to go right as had to go right with the James Webb Space Telescope, “even the color matters,” explained Matt McAlonis, a Middletown-based engineering fellow and director of advanced systems and architecture with TE Connectivity. “And so typically if [equipment is facing] the sun, you’re going to see a white wire on the cables.
“If something is black in a solar environment, it gets very, very hot,” McAlonis said. “If something is white, it would be 75 to 100 degrees cooler.”
Knowledge like that, it seems, is why NASA contracted McAlonis and his colleagues — rather than, say, a reporter who struggles to distinguish between dental floss and mundane-looking but highly-advanced cable — to produce cable for the Webb.
“You think of a thousand ways it could go wrong,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator of its science mission directorate, told media last week, speaking generally of the precision required for the $10 billion project. “There’s only one way to do this right. And that’s what happened.”
What’s now the Middletown engineering hub for TE, a global conglomerate with 80,000 employees, was previously Middletown-headquartered AMP, or Aircraft Marine Products, which launched in the 1940s and which McAlonis joined in 1994.
“It came from just a group of inventors that invented some technology,” he said. “There was a lot of good machine manufacturing in this area — so stamping, molding, plating, assembly, machine design.”
TE purchased AMP in 1999.
NASA’s ask for the Webb of McAlonis and TE?
“I need your lightest wire possible. So how small can you make it?” McAlonis said, characterizing the assignment. “What temperature extreme can I use this up to?”
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“There are a lot of different systems in a telescope of that nature,” he said. “So all of that requires high reliability in a very harsh environment.”
(In fact, a new report says scientists are working to determine the extent of “uncorrectable damage” the Webb sustained when a micrometeoroid hit it in May.)
Exactly 50 years ago, on July 20, 2022, another rather successful mission — the Apollo 11 lunar landing — used cable from Raychem, another company that became part of TE. And McAlonis said TE is working on the project to return people to the moon by 2024.
The Webb’s first images — the quality of which surprised even project leaders — generated global attention. But the long-term possibilities for the confluence of the Webb’s capabilities and the return to the moon?
“Instead of mining the planet and using all of our natural resources here,” McAlonis said, “there could be some very available minerals and very valuable things out in space that we can harvest there, process on the moon, and bring back here.”
And who knows — Zurbuchen said during the interview last week — perhaps “to find the components of the atmospheres of planets that have the promise that they could be hosts of life.”
“It’s going to be just amazing,” he said.