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How NASA’s Giant New Space Telescope Will Make Life On Earth Better

The James Webb Space Telescope will soon launch into space, but before it has even left, the technologies used in its construction are already finding uses back here on Earth.

NASA is responsible for more Earth-bound technologies than just space ice cream; the organization’s research has led to everything from new kinds of artificial limbs to better fire-fighting equipment (and don’t forget Tang). While at SXSW, I had the chance to check out a full-scale model of the giant James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a 21-foot in diameter telescope that will be sent into space in 2018 to find the first galaxies that formed in our universe.

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JWST has already taught us a lot, even though it has yet to be launched. That’s because new technologies had to be invented just to make it work. Below, some of the highlights.


Diagnosing Eye Diseases More Efficiently

In order to measure the shape of the telescope’s mirrors (they’re aspheres, or lenses with shape profiles that aren’t cylinders or spheres), NASA had to invent better sensing technology. The result: the Scanning Shack-Hartmann Sensor, a new kind of measurement device that can also be used to better measure the shape of human eyes in a matter of seconds instead of hours. The technology has the potential to improve surgery and better diagnose eye diseases.


Testing Materials Strength

A lot of strength testing goes into telescope production–especially for a telescope that will be operating in -450 degree F weather. Thanks to JWST, a company called 4D Technologies had the opportunity to develop new techniques to measure composite materials. James Millerd, president of 4D Technology Corporation, explained in a statement: “Technology developed for the Webb telescope has also helped 4D Technologies to develop unique technology to measure strain in composite materials.” As we start building with crazier material than just wood and concrete, the testing that originated in the JWST could be invaluable.


Better Cameras

NASA’s testing of aspheric optics has also led to the creation of a tool called the aspheric stitching interferometer, which can be used for aspheric lens measurements of all kinds. In English, that means that you could be seeing the fruits of their labor in your own cameras, microscopes, and binoculars–a little bit of the power of the space telescope here on Earth.

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And what about its primary purpose, space exploration? Once JWST makes it into space, there’s no telling what it might find. NASA’s says: “It will study every phase in the history of our universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.” That may not be useful in everyday life, but chances are, the many technologies used to build upon JWST in the future will be.

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About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more

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