Braving the rain, scientists and engineers have rolled out a full scale model of the NASA James Webb Space Telescope at South by Southwest. The public will get an up-close look at the telescope, which will look deep into the cosmos for starlight from the most distant galaxies to learn about the origins of the universe.
“We call ourselves a time machine,” said Scott Willoughby, James Webb program manager at Northrop Grumman, where the telescope is being built. “We can look and actually find, further than Hubble did, the first light that came out after the big bang.”
The telescope will also be able to scan alien planet atmospheres for signs of the ingredients of life, he added.
About the size of a tennis court, the behemoth telescope sitting on the lawn of the Long Center for the Performing Arts in Austin, Texas, is a massive device. Seven Hubble Space Telescope mirrors could fit into one of the James Webb’s. The bigger the mirror, the fainter the light that can be collected – and James Webb, set to launch in 2018, will be looking for some very faint light from the Universe’s birth.
With about 30,000 onlookers expected to filter through the festival, James Webb exhibit officials hope to attract a generous slice of passersby with the massive telescope and the interactive events inside the tent. The display is part of an effort to get people interested in the telescope – but also to encourage young people to consider careers in science and engineering.
“What we want to do is pique their curiosity,” Willoughby said.
Even the inclement weather seems to be working in their favor.
“The one thing the rain did was drove a lot of people into the tent,” Willoughby said. “So it actually turned out pretty good – our speakers had a broader audience.”
Inside the nearby tent, viewers will get to handle some of the flight-worthy materials the giant telescope is made of. The James Webb Space Telescope will be made of strong but extremely light composites. Its heat shield, which brings the temperature down by about 600 degrees Fahrenheit, is made of five super-thin sheets that feel as frail as a Mylar balloon.
The James Webb model, on the other hand, is meant to withstand Earthly challenges, so it’s made of heavy, sturdy metal and bolted to the ground. Its sun shield is essentially made of tarp to withstand rough winds.
Along with presenting a packed schedule of speakers and events, the James Webb officials are aiming to break a Guinness World Record Sunday evening for the largest outdoor astronomy lesson. They’re calling for 500-strong at the 7:30 p.m lecture.
Follow me on Twitter @aminawrite.