Written by David DuPont
BG Independent News
Aaron Sayer suspects that some of his DNA is now a million miles away from his home in Bowling Green.
As a metallurgical engineer at Elmore’s Matterion, Sayer had the lead role in crafting the beryllium used in the mirrors of the James Webb Space Telescope. He’s now touching those mirrors a million miles away.
So being part of a scientific breakthrough was all in one day’s work. Not that he, along with the scientific community and the public, doesn’t care about the images the satellite is now broadcasting from deep space, visions from billions of light years away, and insights from the deep past.
As one commenter on social media told him: “In a way, you touched eternity.”
When the telescope was launched at 7 a.m. on Christmas Day, Sayer gathered his family, wife Kirsty, and their five children—two of whom weren’t even born when work on the project began—to watch it on NASA TV. Four months later, the telescope was in place, and after two months of modification, it retransmitted its first image on July 11, a day earlier thanks to President Joe Biden’s request. Then the photos came back on July 12.
That was fast given the pace at which the project had moved before then.
Sayer said he was recruited by Materion in 2003. There were a few experts in beryllium mining, and he wasn’t one of them, at that point.
“I had experience as a quality engineer from my previous job and also understood manufacturing environments,” he said. Matreon felt they could shape him for the job.
NASA has already approved Materon’s proposal to use beryllium in mirrors. “I’ve checked most of the boxes,” said Sayer, chief operations engineer. “This grade of beryllium was designed and used only for the James Webb Telescope.”
Beryllium can be polished and coated so that it detects white light and infrared light. “It’s better than glass, and it’s very lightweight, which is important when you’re throwing something a million miles into space,” Sayer said.
The process was difficult. Each of the 18 mirrors, each 55 inches wide, had a thick folder to record the results of all the operations and tests it had to undergo. NASA checked every step of the way.
These were among the largest structures the company has ever dealt with, so the manufacturing process was unique to the project.
“I was in charge of mixing those powders to make sure the chemistry was what NASA wanted,” Sayer said, and that the mirrors had the qualities that would enable them to “survive during launch and that million-mile flight and still have these inversion properties.”
The photos shown earlier this month were the ultimate clue. The pictures are already yielding scientific discoveries.
NASA states on its webpage: “Webb has revealed – in one note – the clear signature of water, indications of fog, and evidence of clouds that he thought were nonexistent based on previous observations.”
Matterion delivered the mirrors within three years. “It was only part of the entire project on time and within budget,” Sayer said. “Then the madness went away.”
The original launch date was 2007, which was unrealistic and may have been set for personalization purposes. Then it was 2010, and then it kept going for two years.
Sayer said the launch date “was a running joke.”
The company has worked on other applications of beryllium including nuclear projects, in both pharmaceuticals and power generation. This includes work on the next generation of nuclear power plants involving fusion being developed in France by an international consortium.
Then, early last fall, NASA seemed to be headed in earnest toward launch. The telescope has been shipped to the International Spaceport in French Guiana where it will be launched.
Launched and put into place, the James Webb Telescope delivers intensely detailed images not previously possible. Infrared technology allows to reduce dust in the atmosphere.
What you see will be in the textbooks, Sayer said. “We will learn more about the Big Bang and how the Earth was created.”
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said: “These images, including the deepest look at our universe ever captured, show us how the Web will help reveal answers to questions we don’t yet know to ask; questions that will help us better understand our world and humanity’s place in it. “.
The telescope can identify exoplanets with an atmosphere that could support life. “We’re just scratching the surface of what he’s going to find,” Sayer said. It will take the scientists years to go through all the data that Webb provides.
“It will change some science outside space. It will teach us more and change the facts. Being a part of it is very exciting.”