The James Webb Telescope is scheduled to take over as the world's premier space telescope when it launches in 2018. Mission engineers have now, for the first time, unveiled the mirror network that will lie at the heart of the orbiting observatory.

The Hubble Telescope, launched in 1990, is now 26 years old, nearing the end of its operational lifespan. Until 2011, American astronauts were able to service the giant eye in the sky whenever a component failed. However, with the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA has been without a means of conducting maintenance on the orbiting observatory. An additional failure could end the Hubble mission at any time, and there would be no way to repair the telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) promises to take over where Hubble is due to leave off, expanding the search capabilities of its predecessor.

The first public display of the network of 18 mirrors was made during integration and testing of the telescope. This is the first time since mirror construction was completed that covers have been lifted off the massive reflecting surface. When Webb launches into orbit, the observatory will house the largest mirror ever sent to space.

"To ensure the mirror is both strong and light, the team made the mirrors out of beryllium. Each mirror segment is about the size of a coffee table and weighs approximately 20 kilograms (46 pounds). A very fine film of vaporized gold coats each segment to improve the mirror's reflection of infrared light," Laura Betz of Goddard Space Flight Center wrote on the NASA website.

The James Webb Telescope is designed to be the most powerful telescope ever built by the human race. Thousands of astronomers around the world will be able to utilize Webb to study planets and moons within our solar system, as well as exoplanets around other stars, and the galaxies near the edge of the visible Universe.

Over the coming months, mission engineers will continue to install equipment on the telescope, and test the observatory to ensure it will survive the rigors of launching into space.

This next-generation telescope in space is a joint project of NASA, The European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency.

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