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Why the new space telescope looks so strange

A NASA astrophysicist explains humanity’s big new toy.

After 25 years and nearly $10 billion, the James Webb Space Telescope has finally left planet Earth. Billed as a successor to the beloved Hubble Space Telescope, the Webb’s mirror is six times larger and its instruments are tuned to observe longer wavelengths, in order to detect the stretched-out light from primitive galaxies 13.5 billion light years away.

That primary mission — to see the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang — determined the unusual and challenging design of the telescope. Instead of a shiny tube, the Webb Telescope looks like a giant honeycomb riding on a silver surfboard. The short answer to why it looks like that is: It needs to be very big and very cold.

In the video above, NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn and I build a small model of the telescope to explore its extraordinary design.

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