REDONDO BEACH, Calif., June 30, 2011 -- Mirrors are a critical part of a telescope. The quality is crucial, so completion of mirror polishing represents a major milestone. All of the mirrors that will fly aboard NASA's James Webb Space Telescope have been polished so the observatory can see objects as far away as the first galaxies in the universe. Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) is the prime contractor for the Webb telescope under contract to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
"This milestone is the culmination of a decade-long process," said Scott Willoughby, vice president and Webb Telescope program manager for Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. "We had to invent an entire new mirror technology to give Webb the ability to see back in time."
The Webb telescope is composed of four types of mirrors. The primary one has an area of approximately 25 square meters (29.9 square yards), which will enable scientists to capture light from faint, distant objects in the universe faster than any previous space observatory. The mirrors are made of beryllium and will work together to relay images of deep space to the telescope's science cameras.
"Webb's mirror polishing always was considered the most challenging and important technological milestone in the manufacture of the telescope, so this is a hugely significant accomplishment," said Lee Feinberg, Webb Optical Telescope manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The mirrors were polished at L3 Integrated Optical Systems - Tinsley in Richmond, Calif., to accuracies of less than one millionth of an inch. That accuracy is important for forming the sharpest images when the mirrors cool to -400 Â° F (-240Â°C) in the cold of space.
"The completion of the mirror polishing shows that the strategy of doing the hardest things first has really paid off," said Nobel Prize Winner John C. Mather, Webb's senior project scientist at Goddard. "Some astronomers doubted we could make these mirrors."
After polishing, the mirrors are being coated with a microscopically thin layer of gold to enable them to efficiently reflect infrared light. NASA has completed coating 13 of 18 primary mirror segments and will complete the rest by early next year. The 18 segments fit together to make one large mirror 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) across.
Successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope is the world's next-generation space observatory. It will be the most powerful space telescope ever built and now has more than 75 percent of its hardware either completed, in production or undergoing testing. Webb will observe the most distant objects in the universe, provide images of the very first galaxies ever formed and study planets around distant stars. The Webb Telescope is a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
For the "Behind the Webb: Wax On, Wax Off" video explaining the mirror polishing process: http://webbtelescope.org/webb_telescope/behind_the_webb/10
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