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Massive Space Telescope Is Finally Coming Together
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Massive Space Telescope Is Finally Coming Together

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Massive Space Telescope Is Finally Coming Together

Massive Space Telescope Is Finally Coming Together
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A NASA team has attached nearly all of the hexagonal segments that will together make the primary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured are practice segments). i

A NASA team has attached nearly all of the hexagonal segments that will together make the primary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured are practice segments). Chris Gunn/NASA hide caption

toggle caption Chris Gunn/NASA
A NASA team has attached nearly all of the hexagonal segments that will together make the primary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured are practice segments).

A NASA team has attached nearly all of the hexagonal segments that will together make the primary mirror for the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured are practice segments).

Chris Gunn/NASA

This week, NASA is set to reach a milestone on one of its most ambitious projects. If all goes to plan, workers will finish assembling the huge mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope — an $8 billion successor to the famous Hubble telescope.

"So far, everything — knock on wood — is going quite well," says Bill Ochs, the telescope's project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

The massive mirror is being built in a facility that's essentially a giant, ultra-clean gymnasium. NPR can't go inside for risk of contamination, but I meet crew chief Dave Sime at an observation deck where we can see the mirror below. Sime works for the contractor Harris Corp., and he's normally in there assembling it. When he is, he has to wear a white suit that covers every inch of his body.

"The only thing exposed is your eyes," he says. (Spacecraft assembly pro tip, he adds: To use your cellphone in the clean area, try a Bluetooth headset under your protective clothing.)

The telescope will consist of 18 mirror segments when it's completed. Each segment can be independently adjusted to bring the starlight into focus. i

The telescope will consist of 18 mirror segments when it's completed. Each segment can be independently adjusted to bring the starlight into focus. David Higginbotham/Emmett Given/MSFC/NASA hide caption

toggle caption David Higginbotham/Emmett Given/MSFC/NASA
The telescope will consist of 18 mirror segments when it's completed. Each segment can be independently adjusted to bring the starlight into focus.

The telescope will consist of 18 mirror segments when it's completed. Each segment can be independently adjusted to bring the starlight into focus.

David Higginbotham/Emmett Given/MSFC/NASA

For months now, he's been working 10-hour shifts. His job is to take 18 hexagonal mirror segments, each about the size of a coffee table, and attach them to the telescope's cobweb frame using glue and screws.

When everything is done, the mirror will look like a giant, golden satellite dish, two stories high.

The assembly process is precise, and more difficult than even an Ikea wardrobe. Sime points to a table covered in books filled with instructions: "Each one of those notebooks is for one mirror," he says.

Everything has to be by the book. The Webb telescope will be one of the most expensive things NASA has ever built. Its segmented mirror is so big that, once it's in space, it will have to unfold like an elaborate piece of origami. And to make observations, it will need to be a million miles from Earth, so far that no astronauts could fix it if it breaks.

The ambitious telescope is the largest ever launched into space. It is set to launch in 2018. i

The ambitious telescope is the largest ever launched into space. It is set to launch in 2018. Chris Gunn/NASA hide caption

toggle caption Chris Gunn/NASA
The ambitious telescope is the largest ever launched into space. It is set to launch in 2018.

The ambitious telescope is the largest ever launched into space. It is set to launch in 2018.

Chris Gunn/NASA

But the Webb will be able to do things no other telescope can. It is designed to capture light from the first stars and galaxies, which has been traveling billions of years across the universe to reach our solar system. It will probe the atmospheres of potentially habitable planets outside the solar system. Astronomer John Mather is the telescope's project scientist at NASA, and he is pretty sure it's going to do other things too:

"Every time we build bigger or better pieces of equipment, we find something astonishing," he says.

The Webb is currently scheduled for launch in 2018.

Correction Jan. 25, 2016

A previous version of this post misspelled the name of a crew chief on the space telescope. He is Dave Sime, not Dave Simm.

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