When science center directors from around the country gather in Baltimore this month for their annual conference, they'll be able to see one of the largest scientific instruments ever made: a full-scale mock-up of the James Webb Space Telescope.
Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor working to assemble the $8.7 billion Webb telescope, plans to erect a four-story-high replica of it as a free public attraction along the promenade outside the Maryland Science Center.
Planned as a replacement for the 21-year-old Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb project has been described as the "space observatory of the next decade" — larger and far more powerful than the Hubble.
Officials involved in preparations to display the full-sized model say its arrival could be likened to the arrival of a tall ship in the harbor.
"It is the tall ship of … astronomy," said Ray Villard, news manager for the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Plans call for the model to be on public display from Oct. 14 to 18, but it may stay another week if organizers get city permission. The exhibit will coincide with the annual conference of the Association of Science-Technology Centers at the Baltimore Convention Center and the Maryland Science Center. The conference is expected to draw 1,500 people, including representatives from science, nature and technology centers.
Lon Rains, director of strategic communications for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems, said the model was traveling from California to Baltimore as of Friday and will be assembled on the Inner Harbor shoreline starting Monday or Tuesday..
"It is en route," Rains said Friday. "It is very big. Once it is there, it will be very visible."
The model will be the second astronomy-related attraction at the Inner Harbor this fall, along with an outdoor laser art work running nightly at the Maryland Science Center at least through Oct. 18 and possibly until Oct. 26.
Rains said the Webb model has been exhibited in Europe, New York's Battery Park, and on the Mall in Washington, and typically draws hundreds of thousands of people. The mock-up has a sunshade as large as a tennis court and a mirror on top that looks like a giant satellite dish.
Rains said Northrop Grumman was eager to bring the model to Baltimore's Inner Harbor in part because the company has a sizable work force in Maryland.
In addition, he said, Marylanders have played an integral role in managing the operation of the Hubble telescope from Baltimore's Space Telescope Science Institute, with additional scientists atGreenbelt's Goddard Space Flight Center.
Planned for a 2018 launch, the Webb telescope has been designed to fly one million miles from Earth to record its observations and transmit the data back. From that vantage point, it would be capable of seeing more stars and galaxies than the Hubble could. But the project, which has seen cost increases and delays, has recently been the subject of intense congressional budget debate.
The model, which has been traveling to selected locations since 2005, was built by Northrop Grumman to educate the public about the project's size, scale and complexity, said Villard, the Space Telescope Science Institute representative.
"It looks like a space ship just landed," Villard said of the model. "It has a huge mirror that's more than 20 feet across and looks like a death ray weapon. It's a beautiful model that looks like a sculpture, a work of art. It's hard to believe that the real telescope is going to be put up in space. It looks like something out of Hollywood."
The laser art work, entitled "From a Distant Past," has been presented in Baltimore since Sept. 25 and creates a visual representation of Hubble Space Telescope spectrograph observations of both nearby stars and faraway galaxies. Projected by a green high-powered laser onto an exterior wall of the science center, the art work will move from Baltimore to New York's Rose Center for Earth and Space in November.
The combination of the laser show and the telescope will be especially eye-catching, Villard added.
"This is the biggest and most complex science instrument ever planned to be put into space," he said of the Webb telescope. "To have the laser bouncing near the scale model will be very science fiction-looking."
When set up, the full-sized mock-up of the Webb telescope is 40 feet wide, 80 feet long and 40 feet high, and weighs about 12,000 pounds.
Northrop Grumman, contractor for both the telescope and the model, has identified locations near the Maryland Science Center entrance where it will set up the model and a companion exhibit providing information about the telescope. Additional information and programs will be inside the science center, according to senior marketing director Christopher Cropper.
According to Rains, the model is stored in Cerritos, Calif., and is being shipped from there in two standard-sized sea containers. It typically takes 12 people and two cranes about four days each to erect and take down, and will be on display 24 hours a day while in Baltimore, he added.