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AIAA Rocky Mountain Section Student Essay Contest 2023 Summary: Excellence in Scholarship

The AIAA Rocky Mountain Section (RMS) participated in the 2023 essay contest for 7th and 8th grades organized by Space Systems Technical Committee (SSTC).

Students were invited to submit an original essay on the following theme: “Choose one aspect of the James Webb Space Telescope, describe how it works, and why it leads us to new discoveries and to answer important questions about the universe.” The criteria included originality of ideas presented, soundness of logic used to develop ideas, realism of ideas presented, and quality of composition involving clarity of expression.

The following ten AIAA RMS members provided reviews and ratings of the essays: David Chart, Lynnane George, Rebeca Griego, Clark Mikkelsen, Reece Moellenhoff, Brenda Moll, Adrian Nagle, Sapna Rao, Kari Sanders, and Kathryn Vanhemert.

The 1st and 2nd place winning authors in the 7th and 8th grade categories were presented with a certificate, a monetary award, and NASA merch, and another highly rated essay in the 8th grade category was also recognized.

First place essays were forwarded to the SSTC for its national competition and the results have been fantastic:

The 7th grade essay by Ben Santos won 1st place.

The 8th grade essay by Rowan LaRose won 3rd place.

Ben expressed his appreciation by writing: “Thank you so much for this honor! I really enjoyed writing the essay and learning about the Near-Infrared Spectrograph and the James Webb Telescope! I am excited about the opportunity to join AIAA as a student and be able to learn more about aerospace and be connected with people in the industry.”

Rowan and her mother both wrote they were excited about her winning this recognition for her essay.

Special recognition was extended to Katie Wallin-Miller at STEM School, Highlands Ranch, CO. All 25 essays in the 8th grade category came from her class. Look for an announcement of the 2024 contest next March. Volunteers will again be needed to review the essays.

I hope you will find the winning essays impressive in their scholarship.

Paul Krois



7th Grade: RMS First Place, SSTC First Place

Student: Ben Santos

Teacher: Mrs. Julie Glenney

School: Sky Vista Middle School, Cherry Creek School District, Aurora, CO

Seeing the Unseen - The Near-Infrared Spectrograph

The James Webb Space Telescope is an amazing advancement of space technology which may prove extremely useful to scientists and astronomers. Orbiting the sun 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, it has already revealed many amazing images to scientists on Earth. The first of these was Webb’s First Deep Field, which was revealed by President Joe Biden on July 11, 2022.

These amazing images, which may be vital to learning more about our universe, would not have been possible without the many components that make up the James Webb Telescope. The Integrated Science Instrument Module (ISIM) is a key component to Webb. The ISIM contains the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), the Mid-Infrared Spectrograph (MIRI), the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph FGS/NIRISS, and perhaps the most important, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec).

Not to be confused with the NIRCam, NIRSpec operates on a infrared wavelength range of 0.6 to 5 micrometers. “A spectrograph (also sometimes called a spectrometer) is used to disperse light from an object into a spectrum.” ( Using spectrums, scientists can find out valuable information about an object, such as physical properties, like temperature, mass, and chemical composition.

This is invaluable to scientists and astronomers because if James Webb captures enough light from any celestial object, such as a galaxy or a star, even, to create a spectrum, scientists can analyze that spectrum. Doing so may unlock secrets about the universe previously unknown to humankind.

However, James Webb’s mission period is only five years, starting from Christmas 2021. As of now, over a year of Webb’s five has elapsed. And to add onto that, most of the celestial objects that Webb is studying, such as some of the first galaxies formed following the Big Bang, are so faint that Webb’s mirrors must face them for hundreds of hours to collect enough light to form a good spectrum. In order to be able to maximize its mission time, Webb was programmed to look at 100 objects simultaneously. While this sounds impossible, Goddard scientists and engineers invented entirely new technology to install into NIRSpec.

This technology, called a “microshutter array”, contains approximately 250,000 individual shutters, or “windows” , that can be controlled individually to open or close via a magnetic field. It took over six years to perfect, and each shutter had to be opened thousands of times to get it just right. This long amount of time required to design the new technology should promise top-of-the-line technology for the James Webb Telescope.

Each shutter is 100 by 200 micrometers in dimension, or about the width of a human hair. Although the microshutter arrays had much potential, there were some challenges when designing the new technology. For example, NIRSpec operates at cryogenic temperatures, so the microshutters had to be able to open and close without, for example, freezing shut at such frigid temperatures. Other design challenges were present, such as the need for the microshutters to be able to open and close repeatedly (if needed) without fatigue. Not only did they need to be able to resist fatigue, they had to have the ability to open completely individually, and open wide enough to meet science requirements for space viewing.

In order to resist fatigue, scientists chose to incorporate silicon nitride into the microshutters. Silicon nitride has very high strength and high resistance to fatigue. In order to be able to control the microshutters individually, they are able to be commanded to open or close using a magnetic arm. The arm sweeps past, and controls when it sends out an electric signal or not. The microshutters, when they receive one of the electric signals, open or close based on the signal. The microshutters, when open, will allow light into the system to create a spectrum. When closed, they will block unwanted light that would otherwise disrupt a perfect spectrum.

This allows Webb to view its 100 objects all at once, and create good spectrums for each of them. The magnetic arm opens certain microshutters that will allow the light in from specific celestial bodies, while blocking light from unwanted ones. For example, if there is an extremely faint galaxy that Webb wants to study, and a very bright star that it doesn’t, the bright star would interfere with the light from the faint galaxy, and therefore potentially ruin the galaxy’s spectrum. So Webb would open one (or however many it needs) microshutters to view the faint galaxy, but keep many closed to block light from the bright star. This would allow the light from the faint galaxy to create a much more accurate spectrum than if the bright star was interfering.

Utilizing all of NIRSpec’s abilities can lead us to discover much about the universe. Scientists will use NIRSpec and all of its technological advancements, specially designed for interstellar research, designed over several years for NIRSpec, to learn many things about our universe.

Webb will use its abilities to study some of the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang. It will point its microshutters at distant galaxies-so distant, in fact, that Webb will only see them as being a few years old, when, in reality, they are millions or billions of years old. These galaxies, which Webb will view as very young, appear that way because light only travels so fast. The light from these galaxies takes millions to billions of years to reach our solar system. So, it will be millions of years more for anything in the solar system to see it as it is now-and by then, it will have changed again.

So, when Webb studies these galaxies, scientists can study their perfect spectrums, courtesy of James Webb, to learn more about what the galaxy was like billions of years ago, right after the Big Bang.

While the James Webb Telescope does have many carefully constructed parts, the Near-Infrared Camera, with its all-new microshutters, is by far the most important, which scientists will utilize to learn more about the universe.

Works Cited

In Depth | James Webb Space Telescope – NASA Solar System Exploration. (n.d.). NASA Solar

Instruments and ISIM (Integrated Science Instrument Module) Webb/NASA. (n.d.).

The James Webb Space Telescope Observatory. (n.d.). NASA.

Microshutters Webb/NASA. (n.d.).

Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) Instrument Webb/NASA. (n.d.).

Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) Instrument Webb/NASA. (n.d.).


8th Grade: RMS First Place, SSTC Third Place

Student: Rowan LaRose

Teacher: Katie Wallin-Miller, Ph.D.

School: STEM School, Highlands Ranch, CO

The James Webb Telescope’s Mirror is Going to Amaze Us

The James Webb Telescope has so much potential to discover so many new things. It has various things that give it this potential. It could be the sunshield, or the way that it orbits the sun at the second Lagrange point. But an extremely crucial part of this telescope is the large reflective mirror that takes over the shape of a hexagon. This mirror does so many things that give it the potential to make all of these discoveries. Some very unique things that are crucial to know about this mirror is the reasoning for the gold coloring, the way that it compares to the Hubble space telescope, and how it can see galaxies from billions of years ago.

To start, one really important part of this famous telescope is the large gold reflective mirror. The telescope mirror has a total area of 25m² and a diameter of 6.5m. Since the mirror is so big it normally couldn’t fit into a rocket to be sent into space. But the telescope mirror is designed to fold and unfold easily to fit into a rocket. The mirror is made of a gold material and reflects the light onto another small mirror and onto a camera lens where the infrared waves are transformed into electrical energy and then into a photo. According to the article, The Gold Plating on the James Webb Space Telescope is Much Thinner than Human Hair, “This metal is extremely reflective of both visible light and other forms of radiation, particularly in the infrared range.”(Cohn, 2022). This shows the important reason why the mirror is gold in color because it better reflects other types of light other than just visible light.

The James Webb telescope isn’t the only telescope that has been released into space. The Hubble Space Telescope was released into space back in 1990. It has a very similar mission compared to the James Webb telescope. It is designed to be able to see stars and galaxies from millions, and even billions of light years away. Unlike the James Webb Telescope it has a much smaller mirror that is only 2.4m in diameter. Remember, the James Webb Telescope’s mirror has 6.5m in diameter which is almost three times the size of the Hubble.

Additionally, it is very important for these telescopes to have as high of an exposure as possible. A way to increase the exposure and collect more photons is to widen the lens. For example, when you are taking a picture with a camera a way to increase the exposure of your photo is to widen the lens. This same concept applies to space telescopes. This is crucial because these galaxies are so far away we are already receiving very few photons as it is. The bigger the mirror, the more photons can be reflected therefore increasing the exposure. As said earlier, these telescopes are taking pictures of galaxies that are billions of light years away. The bigger the exposure the better, so the fact that the James Webb telescope has a mirror nearly three times the size of the Hubble will help the telescope capture much better photos.

Secondly, the mirrors of the two telescopes have different colors. This is for a reason. As mentioned earlier the James Webb Telescope mirror is gold because it can capture electromagnetic waves beyond visible light, such as infrared light. But the Hubble Telescope has a silver mirror. This means that the Hubble cannot capture infrared waves like the James Webb can. Scientists and aerospace engineers have learned from this and have improved when making the James Webb Telescope. It is planned to see so much more with the James Webb telescope than the Hubble because of this feature.

Lastly, one of the James Webb Telescope's main goals is to see galaxies from billions of light years ago. Some may ask why we are looking at galaxies from billions of years ago when we could be looking at them now? Well, an interesting fact is, that we can’t. It takes visible light billions of years to travel to us because these galaxies are billions of light years away. This means we are receiving the light from these galaxies billions of years ago. This can actually help us be able to see how the origins of many galaxies were formed. This could help us even be able to tell if life used to or currently is living in some of these galaxies. Maybe figure out if life exists differently than we already know it to be. Yet there is no way to be sure of what these things actually look like today. Scientists and aerospace engineers can make predictions on what they think these galaxies will look like, but again, we can never be sure. This is another reason why it is so important for the mirror on the telescope to be as big as possible. The goal is to capture as many photons as possible to get clear images for scientists to analyze.

In conclusion, the James Webb space telescope does not only have the potential to discover many new things, it also possibly has the potential to discover even more than the famous Hubble Space Telescope that has amazed people for many years. The James Webb telescope is able to capture images of waves that are not even visible to the human eye. This telescope has the potential to do so much and is about to amaze us.


Cohn, H. (2022, July 12). The Gold Plating on the James Webb Space Telescope is Much Thinner than Human Hair. McGill University. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from

Comparison: Webb vs Hubble Telescope - Webb/NASA. (n.d.). James Webb Space Telescope. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from

HUBBLE SPACE TELESCOPE. (n.d.). Space Telescope Science Institute. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from

Hubble-Webb Mirror Comparison. (n.d.). Retrieved April 12, 2023, from

James Webb Space Telescope. (2022, December 1). NASA. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from

Noel, D. (n.d.). Mirrors Webb/NASA. James Webb Space Telescope. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from

Scarr, S., Chowdhury, J., & Sharma, M. (2021, December 23). James Webb telescope and how it works. Reuters. Retrieved April 12, 2023, from


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