MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Remember the Hubble Telescope? Well it's getting old. It's been orbiting the earth for 17 years. So, astronomers are building an even bigger space telescope that will orbit the earth from much father out in space - out beyond the moon.
NPR's Nell Boyce has the details.
NELL BOYCE: Peter Stockman works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. About 10 years ago, he started showing people sketches of a new kind of space telescope. They were not impressed.
Mr. PETER STOCKMAN (Head, James Webb Space Telescope Mission, Space Telescope Science Institute): They would giggle. I think it made them nervous. Nervous like this will never work. They had no faith that such a thing could be done, and they had some reasons.
BOYCE: After all, the idea depended on about 10 technologies that hadn't even been invented. But over time, the project moved forward. And this month, an independent panel said all those technologies really do work. The James Webb Space Telescope - named after the second administrator of NASA - is about to become a reality. Stockman says to show what the telescope will look like, project managers have built a full-scale model that they've been taking around the country.
Mr. STOCKMAN: It takes your breath away. It's pretty outlandish.
BOYCE: What do you mean?
Mr. STOCKMAN: Because it's so big, and it's unlike any other telescope I've ever seen.
BOYCE: I had to go check it out. This week, the cloth and steel model is set up on the National Mall here in Washington, D.C. To me, it looks like a giant ray gun that's about to zap the dome off the Capitol building.
Mr. MARTIN MOHAN (Program Manager, Northrup Grumman): It's actually the reverse - it collects rays, it doesn't send rays.
BOYCE: That's Martin Mohan of Northrup Grumman, the contractor in charge of building this telescope.
Mr. MOHAN: The light we're trying to collect is from stars that are 13 billion light years away - and a light year is about six trillion miles. So if you do the math, it's a long, long way away.
BOYCE: That's about half a billion light years farther than Hubble can see. To copulate that faint, the telescope has to be bigger. To see how big, we step on to a piece of construction equipment that will take us to the top.
Mr. MOHAN: I love heights.
BOYCE: Are you - you're not scared?
Mr. MOHAN: You know, I'm not scared. No.
BOYCE: Okay. So now we're up pretty high.
Mr. MOHAN: Let's see, we're approaching about, oh, 30 feet.
BOYCE: Face to face with the telescope, would you say?
Mr. MOHAN: We are face on, that's right.
BOYCE: We're hovering over the model in front of something that looks like a golden satellite dish. The telescope's light collecting mirror is going to look very much like this. It will be made of 18 hexagonal pieces that fit together like a honeycomb.
Mr. MOHAN: The mirror itself is 21 feet in diameter and it has an area about seven times that of a Hubble Space Telescope.
BOYCE: The mirror sits on top of a kind of silver trampoline. I can see at down below us - it's as big as a tennis court. Mohan says it's a sun shield.
Mr. MOHAN: It's basically like a huge beach umbrella, if you want to think of it like that. It's there to put the telescope in the shadow of the sun and the reason is, this telescope has to be very, very cold. So, about 30 degrees from absolute zero where all on molecular motion, atomic motion stops.
BOYCE: It needs to be cold because it's designed to sense infrared. It could be blinded by warmth from the sun or anything else. So it's going to be sent nearly a million miles away from earth - four times father away than the moon. To get there, the whole telescope is going to be folded up like origami and stuffs into a rocket.
Once it's in space, it's supposed to deploy itself. If it doesn't, it's going to be too far away to fix. Peter Stockman at the Space Telescope Science Institute says some people find this disturbing.
Mr. PETER STOCKMAN (Official, Space Telescope Science Institute): We have to constantly reassure astronomers and people who fund us, that these things are being tested sufficiently on the ground - that they won't go wrong.
BOYCE: NASA - along with other space agencies - plans to invest over $4 billion in building and operating this telescope. Just six years from now - if all goes well - it will head out to its lonely outpost in the blackness of space.
Nell Boyce, NPR News.
NORRIS: You can see the pictures of the James Webb Telescope model and some of Hubble's greatest images from space at our Web site, npr.org.
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