The mirror on the James Webb Space Telescope is halfway done, friends. It will have 18 primary mirrors and nine of them are set. This is a big deal because NASA sent another pretty important telescope into space with a faulty one (psst: it was the Hubble). The mirror was plagued with a spherical aberration, a defect cause by a malfunctioning device used during polishing. Fixing that problem cost NASA a whole lot of money and made them look kinda silly, so this time they were like, “Guys, we really need to get this right.”
In a move that turns out to be totally unhelpful in the avoiding-mirror-disasters plan, the telescope will also have a secondary mirror. I thought this meant it would have a back-up to prevent the previously mentioned debacle, but it doesn’t. The second mirror is working full-time just like the first, but it has a different job. I don’t understand exactly what it does because usually I depend on Dave to explain these things to me and he’s killing dungeon demons right now. The internet tells me it sends images reflected from the primary mirror to the telescope’s cameras. Whatev, basically, it’s not a back-up so this first one has to work.
The Webb itself is going be the most powerful space telescope ever created and it is practically a time machine. Yeah, you read that right. It will be able to see back in time—up to 200 million years after the Big Bang. This means scientists (and us, because we are all scientists!) will be able to see images of the birth of our universe’s first stars and galaxies.
There are a lot of things I don’t fully understand and this is one of them. I know that we can see these things because of the speed in which light travels, but if I dig too deep in my mind on the subject, it starts to get a bit muddy. I do know that this is super cool and humans are amazing for wondering about these giant questions and finding a way to solve them.
Sometimes people feel small when they think about the vastness of the universe. I feel at ease and you should too. We are connected to billions of years of exploding stars and space-floating hydrogen atoms. We came from those early molecules and we’ll become them again, because that’s life, literally. We are intertwined—with the people that sit next to us on the bus in the morning and the elephants marching through African savannas. We are made of the same stuff. As my best friend, Bill Nye, taught me, “We’re drinking the water the dinosaurs drank.”
Learning about space reminds me that we are both tiny and gigantic all at once. We should remember that there are things bigger and more important than us, but also that we have the power to think big thoughts, explore the universe, and make our world better.
Science for the win.