The Utah companies behind the James Webb Space Telescope
With the first anniversary of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launch coming up in December, there are many milestones the world can celebrate with the release of the images JWST has produced over the past year.
Some of those notable photographs include some of the clearest pictures of Neptune and its rings, exoplanets, other galaxies, nebulas, and many more.
The success of a new telescope might lead some to wonder: How does the telescope create such crystal-clear images? And what’s so different about the JWST that makes it better than the Hubble Space Telescope?
Utah actually served as a primary source of one of the telescope’s essential materials, a mineral called beryllium, by recruiting Materion, MOXTEK, and Webb’s primary contractor, Northrop Grumman. Strategic planning for the project was also borrowed from these companies.
“Our scientists helped decompose the scientific objectives,” says Charlie Atkinson, chief engineer of Northrop Grumman. “The first one was to look at and characterize galaxies like our own and understand why they look the way they do. The second was to inquire, ‘Are we alone?’ And to look at the planets and stars nearby.”
Together with NASA and other companies, Northrop Grumman built a team focused on mission success and delivering the world’s first space-deployable telescope. “In order to see the first stars and galaxies—the early universe—we needed to invent and develop new technologies that did not exist,” Atkinson says.
In fact, there were about 10 new technologies that did not exist before JWST, including the mirror. This mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments and is 10 times lighter than the Hubble Space Telescope mirror. “There has never been a mirror made that lightweight before JWST,” Atkinson says.
The JWST maintains a hot and cold side, Atkinson says, the bottom being the hot side and the top being the cold side. “There’s a 600-degree differential at all times. We have to maintain the thermal temperature,” he continues. “Webb has to maintain its stability, not move at all, to capture these photons that were created billions of years ago. These pictures that you’re seeing today, there’s a lot of engineering going to make them as visually stunning as they are.”
Another example of the JWST’s innovations is the pointing stability. “When making long exposures of a distant celestial object, we have to maintain pointing at that location. We are looking very, very far away at fine details,” Atkinson says. “The equivalent of this feat is as if I was in Washington, D.C., and I shot a bullet the target the size of a quarter to LAX.”
Keith Smith, VP of nuclear, science, and government affairs at Materion, says the beryllium used in the telescope was mined entirely in Delta, Utah.
“We’ve been mining there for 50 years,” says Cory Allen, the plant facility manager. “We’re one of the first industrial businesses in Miller County.”
In fact, the majority of the world’s beryllium comes from the Delta facility, Allen says. “Without a facility in Utah, we would not have a business.”
Materion was also responsible for making the JWST’s gold-plated mirror planks. NASA chose beryllium for these planks because of the mineral’s ability to withstand extreme hot and cold temperatures. “Beryllium is really stiff. We made these hexagonal mirrors, so they fold up. When they launch in space, it opens up like a flower,” Smith says.
Each mirror only weighs about 44 lbs.—1/3 lighter than aluminum. “[Beryllium] has very good thermal properties,” Smith says. “At the temperature in space, which is cryogenic, it’s almost absolute zero. These mirrors distribute heat very well, so they are uniform. Beryllium is very dimensionally stable, so you can make a perfect mirror that works in space.”
MOXTEK, another Utah-based company, was also involved with the telescope project and has been for more than 30 years. “Our part was small but very important,” says Shaun Ogden, business developer and product manager of MOXTEK
To measure the mirrors and ensure they would be flat enough, MOXTEK came up with the development of measurement tools.
“Our design allows for better images, but it also exposes the telescope, so any defects in the curves of the mirror would be noticeable using our tech,” Ogden says. “The bigger your mirror, the more important it is.”
Composite structure is what Atkinson considers the “unsung hero” of the JWST. “Behind those mirrors is the structure holding them. If any of those mirrors move with respect to the other one, you’re basically bending the entire mirror,” he says. “The structure of the mirror has to be very stable. It was necessary for JWST to keep the mirror stable in nanometers, which is about 1000x more stable than what had been required previously.”
The JWST is 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble, Atkinson continues. “You can see when the images come out and put them side by side. It enables much more science as a result of the high resolution of the large collecting area to decompose the light coming in and look for chemical signatures. In just the three months it’s been up there, we’ve seen water on planets and carbon dioxide on exoplanets. It’s the first time ever we’ve [seen] a planet’s atmosphere like this outside of our solar system.”
"This telescope truly is a national treasure. We’re excited as a company that worked on it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime program."
This discovery raises huge questions for humanity about what’s next for our planet and the entire species inhabiting it. Where will we go? Are we able to colonize other planets? What else do we not know?
“We still don’t have good evidence of what is in dark energy and dark matter, like how black holes are formed and how they react,” Ogden says.
But we can now have images of nearby black holes, Smith says.
“If you look back at the early universe and the evolution of the early universe, the early cosmos, and the big bang, there are fundamental questions about who we are,” he continues. “There were already earlier galaxies than we anticipated. There’s more activity in the galaxy than we anticipated.”
There was once only an inkling of an idea that there might be exoplanets, Atkinson says, but now we know there are thousands of them.
“We started [the JWST] program well over 20 years ago,” Smith says. “This telescope truly is a national treasure. We’re excited as a company that worked on it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime program.”