The James Webb Telescope, the much-anticipated successor to Hubble Space Telescope, is set to launch in 2018. For the first time, mission engineers unveiled the network of mirrors that will be the heart of the next-generation orbiting observatory.

The 18-segment mirror network, which is coated with gold and the size of a tennis court, was recently unveiled in its full glory.

Each of the coffee table-sized, hexagonal mirror segment is made of lightweight beryllium, which is a dull gray toxic metal. The surface sports a layer of vaporized gold a few atoms thick, giving it a sunny, gleaming look.

This gold layer improves the mirrors' infrared light reflectivity. Increasing the mirrors' infrared light reflectivity will enable it to capture the faint infrared glow of the oldest galaxies and stars in the universe.

Each mirror segment, which weighs approximately 46 pounds, hides several motors underneath. These enable the Earth-bound team to focus the telescope while the instrument is in orbit.

"Scientists from around the world will use this unique observatory to capture images and spectra of not only the first galaxies to appear in the early universe over 13.5 billion years ago, but also the full range of astronomical sources such as star-forming nebulae, exoplanets, and even moons and planets within our own Solar System," NASA wrote in the press release that accompanied the mirrors' unveiling.

In 2018, the next-generation space telescope is set to launch aboard the Ariane 5 rocket. The team will conduct several tests to ensure the new space telescope will survive the space launch.

One of the challenges the team is facing is how to fold the enormous structure into a shape that can fit on the tip of the Ariane 5 rocket.

The installation of the key elements as well as additional safety measures will also be conducted in the succeeding months.

The mirror segment was unveiled on April 27 at the American space agency's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The James Webb Space Telescope, which is slated to be the "most powerful space telescope ever built," is a collaborative project between NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | Flickr

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