A crowd of more than 300 flooded Keller Hall recently to hear 2006 Nobel Prize winner John C. Mather speak on the James Webb Space Telescope and the principles of its operation. If all goes according to plan, said Mather, this uniquely powerful telescope will make it outside of Earth’s atmosphere in four years.
During his talk, Mather elaborated on the telescope’s unique infrared imaging power and said the telescope would be sensitive to the heat emitted from a single bumblebee at a distance of 238,900 miles from the apparatus, the distance from the Earth to the moon.
““You’re an ordinary person, and nevertheless you are going to try and do something impossible.” – John C. Mather.”
Major components of the telescope include solar panels, sunshield, mirror grid and spacecraft bus. The sunshield, comprised of several layered, reflective sheets, keeps the telescope “cold” and prevents the heat from the sun from interfering with the image of the telescope, which is formed by heat. The solar panels are fixed to the sun-exposed side of the shield to provide power to the apparatus.
The sun shield alone has an approximate area of 2,106 square feet, which requires the telescope and its components to be folded into its housing within the shuttle that will take it out of the atmosphere. A team of engineers, physicists and astrophysicists spend days practicing the unfolding process of the major parts, which will occur in space, to scour the apparatus for any and all imperfections. Mather stressed that any imperfections that could hinder the operation of the telescope would not be reachable for repair.
Mather’s Nobel Prize came to him through the opportunity to work on the COBE Satellite, a project that would be the successor to the Hubble Space telescope, which he timidly got on board. Little did he know at the time that the opportunity would result in the Nobel Prize. In fact, he thought for sure that the project wouldn’t even be selected for funding.
Mather says, “I was only 30 years old. I thought, ‘I do not know how to do this, nobody knows how to do this!’” However, through trial and tribulation, Mather along with a team of about 1,500 scientists did what seemed impossible, and today, Mather continues to investigate the impossible.
Mather began his interest in physics and mathematics as a boy. He gathered books on the subjects and spent time at his country home with his parents reading them. Mather humorously recounted, “I thought, ‘well, I’ll just read my books, and when I get to college I’ll see other people and do different things.’”