The James Webb Space Telescope is capturing the universe on a 68GB SSD

Now that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is booted up and capturing some spectacular images, you might be wondering how exactly it stores them. Surprisingly, it carries a relatively tiny 68GB SSD IEEE spectrum – enough to process JWST images one day, but not much more.

While that may sound ridiculously small for a $10 billion satellite, there are several reasons NASA chose the system. First off, the JWST is a million miles from Earth, where it is bombarded by radiation and operating at a temperature less than 50 degrees above absolute zero (-370 degrees F). So the SSD, like all other parts, has to be radiation hardened and survive a grueling certification process.

While not nearly as fast as consumer SSDs, it can still be completed in as little as 120 minutes via the telescope’s 48Mbps Command and Data Processing Subsystem (ICDH). At the same time, the JWST can transmit data back to Earth at 28 Mbit/s via a 25.9 GHz Ka-band connection to the Deep Space Network.

That means that while it’s collecting far more data than Hubble has ever done (57GB compared to 1-2GB per day), it can transmit all that data back to Earth in about 4.5 hours. This occurs each day during two 4-hour contact windows, each allowing for the transfer of 28.6GB of scientific data. In other words, it only needs enough storage space to collect a day’s worth of images – there’s no need to store them on the telescope itself.

However, there is a puzzler. NASA estimates that at the end of the JWST’s 10-year lifespan, due to wear and tear and radiation, only 60 GB of storage space will be available — and 3 percent of the drive is used for storing engineering and telemetry data. That will leave the JWST with very little wiggle room, making us wonder if it will have anywhere near the longevity of Hubble — still going strong after 32 years.

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