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Mirrors completed for successor to Hubble telescope

Made by Ball Aerospace, the 18 beryllium mirror segments for the James Webb Space Telescope are ready to be delivered to NASA. 

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At L2, the balance of gravitational pull means that the telescope will keep up with the Earth as it goes around the sun. The gravitational forces of the sun and the Earth can nearly hold a spacecraft at this point, so that it takes relatively little rocket thrust to keep the spacecraft in orbit around L2.

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JWST’s to-do list

JWST should help scientists search for the first light after the Big Bang, determine how galaxies evolved and observe the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems, NASA officials have said. [The Big Bang to Now in 10 Easy Steps]

But JWST’s astronomical to-do list now includes eyeing alien planets, too.. The instrument will also investigate the properties of planetary systems and, perhaps, the origins of life.

"That wasn’t part of the original plan … but this instrument can look at planets orbiting other suns," said Blake Bullock in JWST business development at Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the huge spacecraft. The telescope has the ability to look for biomarkers, such as water in the atmosphere of a planet orbiting another sun, she said.

"It’s not going to give you the pale blue dot … but it could give you a squiggly line that says there might be carbon … there might be an ocean," Bullock said.

Geoff Yoder, NASA’s JWST program manager, told SPACE.com that the telescope is on track for an October 2018 liftoff. Still to come, however, are key integration tests of the fully assembled and instrumented observatory.

Yoder said work has been completed this month on an Apollo-era test chamber at NASA's Johnson  Space Center in Houston, modified to test the integrated JWST at cryogenic temperatures — at minus 424 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 253 Celsius) or colder.

Back to the beginning of time

Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, noted the size of JWST.

"Hubble is the size of a school bus," Mountain said. "JWST is the size of a tennis court."

JWST’s mirrors are so flat that if you stretch them all out across the United States, "the largest bump would be no bigger than two inches. That’s how smooth these mirrors are," Mountain added.

NASA's chief scientist, Waleed Abdalati, underscored JWST’s future abilities. "The things that are blurring to Hubble will be in sharp focus. And the things that Hubble doesn’t know are out there will be observable, back to the beginning of time as we understand it."

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of last year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

Copyright 2012 SPACE.com, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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