Before Liftoff, A Space Telescope Tours Earth

Meet the James Webb Space Telescope. Watch the Science Friday video.

A full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned successor to Hubble, is on the circuit — making appearances at science conferences and festivals. Science Friday caught up with the observatory and spoke to its handlers in New York City's Battery Park.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.

Time now for Flora - hi, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi.

FLATOW: Flora Lichtman's Video Pick of the Week. She's here with our video pick. It's another great one.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: What have you got for us this week?

LICHTMAN: It's a little meet-and-greets with a telescope you may not be familiar with yet. The successor to the Hubble is the James Webb Space Telescope, and it hasn't been launched yet. It's due up in 2014.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: But as part of it's sort of coming-out party, I think, NASA's kind of been parading around this full-scale model all over the world. It's been to Munich and Dublin, Seattle and...

FLATOW: It's got those little stickers on it from all these different places.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Yeah, there's tons of pictures of people, sort of, like, giving this giant observatory a hug.

FLATOW: Right.

LICHTMAN: So it came to New York, and we met up with it and talked to some of its handlers about what the James Webb is going to be doing.

FLATOW: It's pretty big. I mean, you have to have a good spot for it, no?

LICHTMAN: Yeah, it was Battery Park, which is downtown. It needs a big area, because it's about the size of a tennis court.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: So think about - this is the kind of the amazing thing about seeing it, is how do you get something that is the size of a tennis court up in space, a million miles away, which is where it's headed?

And part of what was neat was hearing about the engineering of this device. So basically, they have to fold it up like a, you know, like a flower that is going to then unfurl once it gets to its destination. But as you can imagine, there's a lot of tricky engineering...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...in that.

FLATOW: Yeah. So if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, you can see Flora's video, an interview with the folks there, and see how this - almost magically, is going to unfold. It's, like, amazing.

LICHTMAN: It is pretty amazing. And I think the other - one of the other tricky things about building it, we learned, was that you have these huge mirrors. And the mirrors are like - it's like eight of Hubble's optics can fit in to the James Webb optics. So we're talking about a lot bigger. And the James Webb, by the way, is an infrared observatory, and Hubble is visible. And what that should allow us to do is to see farther back in time.

But part of this is building these giant mirrors. And they said that you actually have to shave off atoms by the end to get the...

FLATOW: It's so precise, you have to shave it to the atom.

LICHTMAN: That's right, which is unbelievable. I mean, just to get the prescription exactly right so that you focus that light into the other mirror, which then collects it and...

FLATOW: They're not using a ShamWow on that to clean it.

LICHTMAN: No, indeed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: No, and it's made of beryllium, too, because the other thing I hadn't thought about is it's pretty cold in space, it turns out...

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...like, negative 400 degrees Fahrenheit. And so they have to make it of these special materials. It sounds like that's part of - it's part of the big challenge, just figuring out what material you can make a mirror out of or work as a mirror in that - those conditions.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I guess - and, of course, is has to keep its shape, because it is a mirror. If you're going to make it a certain shape, it has to - that's why they're using that material.

LICHTMAN: Right. And they test it here on earth. They have to sort of make it in a prescription that, in room temperature, is going to be a different shape that, you know, than it will be in colder temperature. So there's a lot of, sort of, tricky engineering. And, in fact, it took 20 years. I mean, this - the plans for this telescope started happening before Hubble went up.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's hope they don't have to put those eyeglasses on this one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I mean, fix before - while it's here in the ground.

LICHTMAN: I think it's going to be difficult, because it's headed to Lagrange point number two, so...

FLATOW: That's far out there.

LICHTMAN: That's pretty far.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well - and you can see this James Webb telescope there at - Flora went out there with a camera and interviewed folks at Battery Park here in New York. And go to our website at sciencefriday.com, Video Pick of the Week up there on the left side, click on it, click on a bigger section of it and watch it and share it with your friends.

LICHTMAN: Please.

FLATOW: Thank you. Thanks, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Have a great weekend.

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