If you were a rogue bee buzzing on the moon, this heat-detecting honeycomb could find you. But rest easy, tiny friend: The $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope will have bigger concerns. Once it is blasted into orbit in 2021, it will seek out water on Earth-like planets, stars being born, and remote objects formed in the first 100 million years after the Big Bang.
Webb’s precision comes from its 21.3-foot primary mirror, nearly three times as big as Hubble’s. Its folding, hivelike design is formed by 18 lightweight beryllium hexagons that work as one; to sharpen focus, 126 small motors pivot these segments in increments as small as one ten-thousandth the width of a grain of lily pollen. They collect 269.1 square feet of light, 50 times more than NASA‘s current infrared space telescope, Spitzer. A gold coating enhances the mirror’s reflection of long-wave light, including infrared radiation created 13.6 billion years ago, further back than any telescope has ever seen. “The telescope is a time machine,” says Nobel laureate and lead scientist John Mather. “You see things as they were when light was sent out.”
Some 10,000 astrophysicists, engineers, and chemists have worked on Webb. Mather’s been at it the longest, since 1996, when NASA left him a voicemail asking whether he wanted to help build its biggest telescope yet. He led the team at NASA’s Goddard facility in Maryland that identified 10 necessary technologies that didn’t yet exist, including a tennis-court-sized plastic sun shield that ensures accurate infrared detection by chilling the observatory to -370 degrees Fahrenheit. (Above, Webb prepares for testing in NASA’s cryogenic vacuum chamber in Houston.) The project, initially expected to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, has faced challenges (leaks, rips, Congress). But now it’s on track to launch from French Guiana in a European Ariane 5 rocket.
Hovering 1 million miles from Earth, Webb will beam down 458 gigabits of data a day for up to 10 years, potentially revealing the deepest mysteries of the universe’s origins. Mather imagines “there’s something out there we would never have guessed.”
LAURA MALLONEE (@LauraMallonee) writes about photography for WIRED.
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