NASA on Wednesday announced a huge milestone in its $8.7 billion
James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) mission: the completion of the
gigantic golden mirror.
To commemorate the moment, the space agency’s Goddard Space
Flight Center (GSFC) released a dramatic
video about the telescope on YouTube.
“The efforts of thousands of people across the United States,
Canada, and Europe, for almost two decades achieved this
milestone,” the narrator said. “Getting to this point wasn’t
easy. […] Before astrophysicists’ dreams of building Webb could
be realized, 10 technologies that did not exist needed to be
created and perfected. They were.”
The video shows off many of those revolutionary technologies,
including lightweight support structures, sensors, and more.
But we noticed a crucial part of the telescope — about a minute
and 30 seconds into the
video — is blurred out beyond recognition:
In case that’s hard to see, here’s a labeled screenshot:
And let’s zoom in on that a bit:
We provided the first image to Lynn Chandler, a NASA
representative for JWST, and asked why the part circled in red
was blurred out.
“This technology is proprietary. The government must respect the
intellectual property of its industry partners,” Chandler told
Business Insider in an email.
We then asked which company made the blurred-out part, and
requested more details about it and its role in JWST’s mission
(which, by the way, is to study objects at the
edge of the universe and quite possibly
the air around Earth-like exoplanets).
“That is the secondary mirror support structure with the
secondary mirror on it which includes details of mirror mounts,”
Chandler said. “The secondary mirror relays light from the
primary mirror and does optical correction.”
For reference, below is JWST’s secondary mirror with its convex,
gold-plated surface. It’s a critical part. It takes all of the
giant primary mirror’s light and focuses it onto a third mirror
inside the telescope’s housing, which then bounces it into a
suite of detectors. Presto, images of the universe.
The blurred-out part on the backside (which you can’t see) is
noted by the arrow:
NASA declined to tell us which company made the blurred-out part,
saying that information is an “ITAR [International Traffic in
Arms Regulations] issue” (more on this jargon in a moment).
However, we know Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor that
designed the spacecraft, and Ball Aerospace
built the secondary mirror.
Lon Rains, a Northrop Grumman representative, declined to comment
further and asked us to direct our questions to NASA. Ball
Aerospace did not immediately respond.
Wait: Why is a mirror considered a weapon?
Why is the back of a mirror on a taxpayer-funded scientific
observatory considered an “arm” that must be regulated?
Probably because of spy satellites.
After all, if your telescope can see as sharply as
Hubble, yet resolve objects 10 to 100 times dimmer (as JWST
should be able to do), that could be useful for peering down at
human activity on Earth. And the US government wants to maintain
any edge it can over the militaries of countries like China and
In fact, if you’re working in the US — or for the country — on
anything that could be even remotely considered a weapon,
do-it-yourself spacesuit, you have to make sure it’s not on
the Department of State’s
ITAR munitions list. Otherwise you might have to
pay up to $1,094,010 and possibly face jail time for each
ITAR experts are common inside companies and agencies that work
with space technologies, so one of them at NASA probably reviewed
their video and said “this part has to be blurred out” to avoid a
“It’s basically caution about space hardware details being
released by the US government,” Anand Sivaramakrishnan, an
astronomer at Johns Hopkins University (which works closely with
the JWST mission), told Business Insider.
“If I had a piece of space hardware in my room, I may not be
allowed to have a foreigner come into my room” per ITAR
regulations, Sivaramakrishnan said. “I couldn’t let him or her
What isn’t being shown?
Though we’re not in the aerospace business, we don’t want to
violate ITAR — and possibly pay a million dollars.
But we can describe what’s back there, generally speaking. (Note:
There is a moment in the NASA video that does appear to show the
back of the secondary mirror.)
So what is it?
Sivaramakrishnan said it’s probably the support structure for the
mirror, plus a cluster of motorized actuators that can move it.
You’re already familiar with mirror actuators if you’ve driven a
modern car. They’re what whir when you fiddle with a side-mirror
adjustment knob. But where automobile actuators typically have
only two actuators and degrees of freedom — side-to-side, and
up-and-down — each of JWST’s mirrors has six degrees of
Sivaramakrishnan said the cluster of six actuators is called a
“If you take a computer keyboard and hold it in space, it needs
six numbers to describe where it is in space,” he said. That’s up
and down, forward and backward, side to side, and a rotational
aspect to each one. “So if you want to put a mirror in the exact
right location, you have to specify that. And that’s a hexapod.”
The precision you need in a space telescope in mind-bogglingly
precise, though. And JWST has 19 gold-plated mirrors with a
hexapod a piece.
Sivaramakrishnan said the tolerance — or error in distance — that
the primary mirror of JWST can only be off by 140 nm, or just
larger than the width of an HIV virus. Any more, and there could
be huge problems with the focus and exposure.
The hardware required to do this on JWST is “fancy,” he said, and
“the details are under restriction.”
So if you’d like to find out more, now is as good a time as any
to work toward your aerospace engineering degree and get a job at
NASA or one of its contractors. Good luck!
NASA is trying to keep part of its giant golden telescope a secret – Business Insider