Since 1990, the Hubble Space Telescope has given us breathtaking images of our galaxy and beyond. From the iconic Pillars of Creation.

pillars of creation hubble

To the Sombrero Galaxy.

sombrero galaxy hubble

But, it’s been in low Earth orbit for 25 years, and astronomers are getting antsy for an upgrade. That’s where the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) comes in.

In a clean room that would impress even your mom, engineers installed the first of 18 flight mirrors onto the James Webb Space Telescope. Weighing 88 pounds and measuring 4.2 feet across, engineers used a robotic arm to lift and place the hexagonal-shaped mirror.

james webb space telescope mirror

Once all 18 mirrors are placed together, they will work in tandem as one large 21.3-foot mirror. The 17 other mirrors should be in installed by early next year.

John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters, describes the telescope as, “the premier astronomical observatory of the next decade.”

This week’s mirror installation, “symbolizes all the new and specialized technology that was developed to enable the observatory to study the first stars and galaxies, examine the formation stellar systems and planetary formation, provide answers to the evolution of our own solar system, and make the next big steps in the search for life beyond Earth on exoplanets,” Grunsfeld added.

Each mirror must be meticulously installed. Once in space, there is no room for error. They need to be perfectly aligned for it to work properly. And stay completely still while operating at temperatures approaching -400 degrees Fahrenheit.

“There have many significant achievements for Webb over the past year, but the installation of the first flight mirror is special,” said Bill Ochs, James Webb Space Telescope project manager. “This installation not only represents another step towards the magnificent discoveries to come from Webb, but also the culmination of many years of effort by an outstanding dedicated team of engineers and scientists.”

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Here’s a video that illustrates just how much bigger the JWST mirror is compared to the Hubble.

James Webb Space Telescope goals

What do scientists hope to accomplish with the JWST? While it will image pretty much everything you can think of, the JWST team is focusing on four central areas.

– First light. Armed with a massive mirror and infrared imaging, JWST will look back 13.5 billion years to capture the first stars and galaxies in the early universe.

– Building a galaxy. By comparing the earliest galaxies with today’s, astronomers hope to better understand the evolution of galaxies over billions of years.

– How we formed? By ‘we,’ I mean our solar system. All solar systems. The JWST can see right through massive clouds of dust and find stars and planetary systems as they are being born.

– The hunt for life. It’s the biggest goal of them all. Does life exist outside of our little corner of the universe? JWST will give us an in-depth look at the atmospheres around exoplanets. It may even be able to detect the building blocks of life.

Keeping the mirrors clean

Ever wonder how scientists clean these huge mirrors? It’s not Windex. It’s snow. More specifically, carbon dioxide snow.

snow cleaning jwst mirror

“The snow-like crystals (carbon dioxide snow) knock contaminated particulates and molecules off the mirror,” said Lee Feinberg, a NASA optical telescope element manager.

This technique will be used in case any of the 18 mirrors become contaminated during installation and testing.

Cleanliness is “critical” if the mirror is to operate effectively according to Feinberg.

We’ve been hearing about the James Webb Space Telescope for years, but it’s finally coming together. Installation of all mirrors should be completed over the next few months. Then rigorous testing and an expected launch date of October 2018.

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Image credits: NASA

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