REDONDO BEACH, Calif., Nov. 15, 2004 (PRIMEZONE) -- NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) moved a major step forward with the opening of a state-of-the-art facility in Cullman, Ala., that will machine the observatory's optical components.

Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) is the prime contractor for JWST, leading the observatory's design and development team under contract to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The new facility, owned by Northrop Grumman team member Axsys Technologies Inc., houses advanced computer-aided manufacturing and metrology equipment that will shape JWST's optical components to a high degree of accuracy. The components consist of 18 hexagonal beryllium segments for JWST's primary mirror, measuring 1.3 meters from tip to tip, and other mirror substrates and support structures.

Fabrication in the facility will begin later this month and will be completed in 2007.

"Axsys Technologies' new facility is critical to providing the lightweight beryllium mirrors that enable JWST's large aperture," said Martin Mohan, JWST program manager, Northrop Grumman Space Technology. "The start of machining the beryllium blanks marks another key milestone accomplished on schedule for the JWST team."

Manufacturing the observatory's mirror is a four-step process, which is being performed by a team led by Ball Aerospace. Brush Wellman compresses beryllium into large segments called "blanks;" Axsys Technologies machines the blanks; Tinsley Laboratories grinds and polishes the mirrors; and Ball incorporates the mirrors into optical assemblies and mounts them on the telescope structure. Manufacturing all 18 mirrors will take approximately four-and-a-half years.

At Axsys Technologies, machining and etching of the blank's backside will reduce the mirror mass by 92 percent, from 553 pounds (250 kilograms) to 46 pounds (21 kilograms); machining of the front side prepares the optical surface for subsequent grinding and polishing. Earlier this year, Axsys Technologies started machining an engineering development unit (mirror prototype) to demonstrate its capabilities.

The observatory features a 6.5-meter (20 feet) aperture primary mirror that will be the largest deployable telescope ever launched. Beryllium, one of the lightest of all metals, was selected as the mirror technology for its demonstrated track record operating at cryogenic temperatures (around -400 degrees Fahrenheit) on space-based telescopes.

JWST will peer into the infrared at great distances to search for answers to astronomers' fundamental questions about the birth and evolution of galaxies, the size and shape of the universe, and the mysterious life cycle of matter. A component of NASA's Origins Program, JWST will reside in an orbit 940,000 miles from Earth at the L2 Lagrange point after its launch in 2011.

Northrop Grumman Space Technology, based in Redondo Beach, Calif., develops a broad range of systems at the leading edge of space, defense and electronics technology. The sector creates products for U.S. civilian and military customers that contribute significantly to the nation's leadership in science and technology and security.

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  CONTACT:  Sally Koris
          Northrop Grumman Space Technology 
          (310) 812-4721