Looking Into Our Past (and Our Future)

Photo Courtesy: SEDS

Abigail Johnson/Staff Reporter

This past weekend SEDS USA (the Space Explorers and Developers Society) held the annual SpaceVision conference in our very own Cape Canaveral at the Raddison Convention center. This occasion brings together scientists, engineers and space lovers alike to listen to some of the top leaders in the STEM fields talk about their research. SpaceVision discusses a range of topics from future space business policies to modern astronomy.

One of the highlights of SpaceVision 2017 was the presentation discussing the building of the James Webb Space Telescope delivered by Senior Engineer Alliston Barto from Ball. Barto highlighted all the major components of the telescope and how these precise parts came together. What makes the James Webb Space Telescope so unique from other telescopes in space is that it is going far out of our orbit: about one million miles from Earth. This means that it will have to escape the launched capsule once it reaches its destination and unfold itself into position. All previous space telescopes have been manually put together by astronauts, but since James Webb will be so far away, a new method will have to be used. This is a challenge engineers have solved using what is called an “origami fold.” The telescope will be folded up inside the launch capsule until it will be slowly (and carefully) unraveled into its new position. However, this is one out of numerous new challenges engineers on this project are having to face. Interestingly enough, since the telescope will be so far away, its temperature must be regulated to function. The James Webb telescope will be positioned in such a way that Earth will always be between it and the sun to help the mirrors of the telescope stay cool. However, to maintain this coolness, the mirrors had to be carefully manufactured to maintain a temperature of at least 30 Kelvin. Temperature is critical due to the purposeful research of the telescope by astronomers to study the very first stars of the universe millions of lightyears away. Barto explains every mirror took around five years to manufacture out of extremely pure Beryllium. After they were created, the mirrors were coated with very thin layers of gold, simply because gold is a metal known to keep cold. Barto explained to her listeners the very intense testing the mirrors had to go through to be properly aligned. “It takes a month to cool it down [on Earth in the vacuum chamber] and another month to warm it back up,” she explained. “We needed to know if it would work… Usually, we have one or two new technologies… but this time we have ten.”

While the James Webb Space Telescope seems so complex, it will be a revolutionary marvel once it is functioning as a useful tool for astronomers. Having the ability to see so far into the origins of the universe in the very first stars will tell scientists information about the past of the universe. The possibility of obtaining insight about the future of our solar system and our species has never seemed so feasible. However, shortly the world will discover how developed these new technologies have become as the James Webb Space Telescope attempts to be launched out of Earth’s orbit.