The Mirror Makers

The fight is on for the chance to build the world’s most advanced space telescope.

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In 1968, a stark cement building slowly took shape on the grounds of an optical manufacturing company called Perkin-Elmer, which sits on a hill in Danbury, Connecticut. The cavernous building was made especially for secret military programs, including the construction of cameras for KH-series spy satellites. Such work capitalized on the company’s expertise—grinding and polishing disks of glass or metal into optical mirrors.

Veteran optical physicist Terence Facey leans back in his chair and declines to elaborate on what was done in the facility from 1968 to 1975, before the company turned its skills toward manufacturing the mirrors for the Hubble Space Telescope.

“It was classified work. Period,” he says politely.

Facey is a London-educated physicist, a thin, white-haired man whose manner and accent give him an air of timeless wisdom. He could easily be cast in a science fiction film as a sage.

Facey has worked at this facility for 34 years and has watched its name change from Perkin-Elmer to Hughes Danbury Optical Systems to Raytheon Optical Systems to, this year, Goodrich Optical and Space Systems Division. The name has changed so many times that those in the optics branch simply refer to the factory as “Danbury.”

Major government-funded optical programs do not come along very often, whether they are top-secret programs or purely scientific efforts. That is why Facey is sitting in a conference room now, talking about why Danbury should be the mirror maker for the        $1 billion Next Generation Space Telescope. When the NGST joins Hubble in space, it will have the largest mirror ever deployed, at least as far as non-classified vehicles are concerned.

The telescope will be stationed not in low Earth orbit like Hubble but a million miles from Earth, at a so-called Lagrange point, where the pull of the Earth and that of the sun are in equilibrium. Here, after a 104-day trip to Lagrange point 2, a mirror six to seven meters (about 20 to 23 feet) across will catch faint infrared light waves emitted by clouds of gases during the first billion years after the Big Bang.

“What did galaxies look like before they were born? This telescope will tell us that, and that’s really exciting,” says astronomer Alan Dressler of the Carnegie Observatories, an organization that operates ground-based telescopes in Chile and California. Unlike many of Hubble’s pictures of relatively nearby galaxies and stars, he says, “the images have the potential to be visually stunning and things we’ve never seen.”

John C. Mather, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, says that between measurements of cosmic background radiation and observations of young galaxies lies a cosmic “dark ages”—a period in the formation of the universe as yet unseen. Mather, who used the Cosmic Background Explorer to confirm the existence of background radiation left over from the Big Bang, looks to NGST to provide insight into the period when the universe was between about one million and a few billion years old—when galaxies and stars began forming.

Last June, NASA released the ground rules for the competition to build the NGST spacecraft and instruments. The company that wins the competition will then decide who will build the telescope’s mirror: Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado, Goodrich in Danbury, Connecticut, or Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York.

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