Mira Costa High School freshman Alex Holcomb, 15, lit up at the sight of the massive James Webb Space Telescope—a technological marvel that engineers began building before he was born.

Holcomb joined dozens of other students this week in getting a sneak peak at the $8.8-billion space telescope at Northrop Grumman headquarters, in Redondo Beach.

The telescope, which first received funding 17 years ago and is now roughly two years from completion, promises to look into the far reaches of the universe and possibly answer fundamental questions of existence.

"It makes me excited that this is in our backyard," Holcomb said during the Monday, Nov. 4, visit.

The Manhattan Beach teenager said he had long known about the telescope, but seeing it up close, with its 18 gold-coated beryllium mirror segments and a sun shield the size of a tennis court left a sizable impression on the young man. Holcomb said he plans on having a career in aerospace.

The telescope is seven times bigger and more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope and is capable of peering at the oldest stars in the universe. It also has the capability to inspire the next generation of scientists, such as those who visited on Monday, according to Scott Willoughby, Northrop vice president and program manager of the telescope.

"Anything worth doing is going to be hard," Willoughby told the students. "There are always going to be bumps in the road."

Challenges are something the Webb program, first funded by Congress in 2002, knows well. Last year, it was announced the telescope would breach its $8 billion cost cap and be delayed nearly three years, with an expected launch now set for March 2021. Northrop is responsible for about half of the $8.8 billion budget, Willoughby said.

For engineers at Northrop Grumman, the James Webb Space Telescope — named after a NASA administrator during the Apollo program — represents one of the biggest aerospace missions based in the South Bay since the moon landings. Engineers at TRW, now Northrop Grumman, built the engine that powered the lunar module during the Apollo-era moon landings.

"This is a huge opportunity for our students," said R.H. Dana Middle School teacher Andy de Seriere, who brought roughly 60 students to the event. "When kids learn from something like this, they are getting a firsthand look at the ground level."

De Sereire said it was important not only to train young people for the jobs of tomorrow, but also to excite and motivate them to pursue those positions.

"We know the jobs are going to be different," de Seriere said. "We have to get them ready for the next big thing."

Students on Monday also heard a presentation from Northrop officials, along with brief remarks by Congressmen Ted Lieu, D-South Bay, and Pete Aguilar, D-San Bernardino.

"It's pretty amazing when you look at what this telescope is going to be able to do," Lieu said. "This is something that will not only benefit Americans, but humanity as a whole."

The visit on Monday morning came as engineers working on the telescope were in the process of rolling up the sun shield, composed of multiple layers of thin reflective material. Once the telescope reaches its orbit of 1 million miles from the Earth — four times the distance of the moon — the sun shield will extend at the base of the telescope to reflect the sun's rays and keep the cool side of the telescope at around -388 degrees Fahrenheit. The warm side, however will be roughly 185 degrees. Keeping certain parts of the telescope cool is critical in allowing it to observe the faint light from faraway objects.

"This was a window of opportunity to show it off in its open state," Willoughby said.

The telescope is housed in a large hangar at the Redondo Beach space park, where teams work on it while wearing white jumpsuits, face masks and rubber gloves.

The goal of the telescope — the largest of any space telescope built to date — is to answer two questions, Willoughby said: "Where did we come from? And are we are alone?"

How it works

The James Webb Space Telescope is based on a rather simple concept: Build the biggest telescope possible that can fit into a 5-meter nosecone of the rocket; put it into an extremely dark part of space; and aim it toward where scientists believe the earliest stars formed, around 13.7 billion years ago.

The telescope will then catch ancient beams of light on its 21.6-foot mirror, as though they were raindrops. By viewing this light -- stretched into an infrared spectrum because the universe is expanding and the light has traveled such a great distance -- the telescope will be able to determine what elements (hydrogen and helium, for example) might be present, whether a distant planet contains an atmosphere capable of sustaining life and even if there are extraterrestrial beings out there.

"As great as what we will be able to see, it's not the end of science," Willoughby said. "It's just the next journey."

Contact Lisa Jacobs lisa.jacobs@TBRnews.com or follow her on Twitter @lisaannjacobs.

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