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Saturday, 9 January 2010

NASA develops mirror to look into galactic past

Once upon a time, shiny surfaces and mirrors were credited with magical powers that could look into the future. Now two centuries later, NASA is relying on them to look into the past.

The agency is developing a primary mirror 21.3 feet across, for use on the James Webb Space Telescope, to tell us about our beginning in the universe.

The primary mirror will serve as the telescope's eye and peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems, connecting the Milky Way to our own solar system.

Handling delicate space hardware holds no superstitious myths for NASA, but it's still a delicate task that requires careful preparation.

On Friday, six of the 18 Webb telescope mirror segments will be moved into the X-ray and Cryogenic Facility, or XRCF, at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre in Huntsville, to experience mercury dipping to minus 414 degrees F to ensure they can withstand the extreme space environments.

When the primary mirror is assembled in space, it will include three different shapes of mirror segments: 6 are "A" segments, 6 are "B" segments and 6 are "C" segments.

This upcoming test in the XRCF will collect data from all three sizes "A, B and C" -- a first for these in the cryogenic facility.

This test will also include the engineering development unit, the first primary mirror segment of the Webb telescope that has met flight specifications at ambient temperatures.

"By the time testing in the XRCF concludes in 2011, all 18 flight segments will have been through multiple measurements while experiencing the extreme temperatures of space," said Helen J. Cole, James Webb Project Manager at NASA-Marshall.

"This process has been six years in the making and we're excited that we can support the Webb telescope development with our world class cryogenic test facility," Cole added, according to a NASA release

Marshall's X-ray and Cryogenic Facility is the world's largest X-ray telescope test facility and a unique, cryogenic, clean room optical test location.

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