02 November 2021

The Wall Street Journal: “How the Search for Extraterrestrial Life Helped Make Your Smartphone’s Screen Possible”

The connection between humanity’s boldest experiment in deep-space exploration and the gadgets in your hands is the technology to produce giant, ultrahigh-precision mirrors and lenses. Such “optics” weren’t possible until NASA asked a handful of companies more than 20 years ago to bid on the rights to figure out a way.

The result, developed by a company called Tinsley Integrated Optical Systems, was a technique that enabled production of very large mirror surfaces that are so nearly flawless that any imperfections on their surface are only a few atoms thick. And that technology can also be involved in producing many displays—using lasers to transform extra-large sheets of silicon deposited on glass—significantly reducing the costs of electronic components for some displays.

The transfer of know-how from space telescopes to the manufacture of displays is the latest in a long line of commercial technologies with similar lineage, from digital-camera sensors to the Dustbuster, which was developed by Black & Decker out of its partnership with NASA.

Christopher Mims

Recurring reminder for the growing number of people complaining that space travel is distracting us from saving the planet: space exploration has yielded numerous scientific and engineering advances that have improved our lives back on Earth. And it will continue to do so, if given enough attention and funding.

The 29 days following liftoff will be an exciting but harrowing time. Thousands of parts must work correctly, in sequence, to unfold Webb and put it in its final configuration, all while it flies through the expanse of space alone, to a destination nearly one million miles away.

On a related note, I sure hope the launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope later this year goes according to plan. After so many delays, it would be a shame that this two-decades-long effort should go to waste…

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