How Do You Clean an $8 Billion Telescope? With High-Speed Snowballs

When it comes to cleaning an $8.8 billion space telescope designed to see farther into the universe than humans have ever been able to before, you can’t just break out a few Clorox wipes. You can, however, blast it with snow. 

The James Webb Space Telescope, the NASA-born successor to Hubble, is set to launch in 2018 as a collaboration between the American space agency and its counterparts in Europe and Canada. With infrared capabilities and a mirror that will be seven times larger than Hubble’s, NASA touts it as the most powerful telescope ever built, able to see 13.5 billion light-years away. 

Although the telescope is being assembled in a world-class cleanroom at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland—an environment designed to keep particles from landing on the telescope and its instruments—it still might need to be dusted off if it somehow becomes contaminated during testing. 

One of the mirrors for the James Webb Space Telescope arrives at Goddard's cleanroom for assembly.

"Small dust particles or molecules can impact the science that can be done with the Webb," Lee Feinberg, NASA’s optical telescope element manager (read: master of some of the world's most valuable lenses) explains in a press statement. "So cleanliness especially on the mirrors is critical."

To clean the sensitive gold mirror, NASA engineers are developing a method of snow cleaning, which they piloted on a special test version of the mirror (see top image). Engineers shoot a high-speed carbon-dioxide liquid that freezes when it hits the mirror, turning into snow-like flakes. The gentle snowflakes brush aside any contaminants (particles of dust, etc.) that might have settled on the lightweight folding mirror segments without scratching. Bring on the super clean snowball fights! 

[h/t: Smithsonian]

All images courtesy NASA/Chris Gunn

Engineers Have Figured Out How the Leaning Tower of Pisa Withstands Earthquakes

Builders had barely finished the second floor of the Tower of Pisa when the structure started to tilt. Despite foundational issues, the project was completed, and eight centuries and at least four major earthquakes later, the precarious landmark remains standing. Now, a team of engineers from the University of Bristol and other institutions claims to have finally solved the mystery behind its endurance.

Pisa is located between the Arno and Serchio rivers, and the city's iconic tower was built on soft ground consisting largely of clay, shells, and fine sand. The unstable foundation meant the tower had been sinking little by little until 2008, when construction workers removed 70 metric tons of soil to stabilize the site. Today it leans at a 4-degree angle—about 13 feet past perfectly vertical.

Now researchers say that the dirt responsible for the tower's lean also played a vital role in its survival. Their study, which will be presented at this year's European Conference on Earthquake Engineering in Greece, shows that the combination of the tall, stiff tower with the soft soil produced an effect known as dynamic soil-structure interaction, or DSSI. During an earthquake, the tower doesn't move and shake with the earth the same way it would with a firmer, more stable foundation. According to the engineers, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is the world's best example of the effects of DSSI.

"Ironically, the very same soil that caused the leaning instability and brought the tower to the verge of collapse can be credited for helping it survive these seismic events," study co-author George Mylonakis said in a statement.

The tower's earthquake-proof foundation was an accident, but engineers are interested in intentionally incorporating the principles of DSSI into their structures—as long as they can keep them upright at the same time.

U2’s 360-Degree Tour Stage Will Become a Utah Aquarium Attraction

The immense stage that accompanied U2 on the band’s 360° Tour from 2009 to 2011 is getting an unexpected second life as a Utah educational attraction. It will soon be installed over a new plaza at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium outside Salt Lake City.

The Claw, a 165-foot-tall structure shaped like a large spaceship balanced on four legs—a design inspired by the space-age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport—was built to house a massive speaker system and cylindrical video screen for the band’s performances. Underneath it, a 360° stage allowed U2 to play to audiences surrounding the structure in all directions. To make it easier to tour 30 different countries with the elaborate system, which took more than a week to put together at each concert location, the band had several versions built.

U2 and its management have been looking for a buyer for the 190-ton structures since the tour ended in 2011, and it seems they have finally found a home for one of them. One of the two remaining Claw structures is coming to the Utah aquarium, where it’s being installed as part of a plaza at the institution’s new, 9-acre Science Learning Campus.

A four-legged, industrial-looking video-and-sound-projection rig rises over a crowd at a concert
The Claw at a Dublin concert in 2009
Kristian Strøbech, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As the only Claw in the U.S., the alien-looking feat of engineering will be "preserved and sustainably repurposed as a Utah landmark and symbol of science exploration and learning," according to the aquarium's press release. As part of the expansion project, the 2300-square-foot stage system will play host to festivals, movies, and other special events in two venues, one with 7000 seats and the other with 350.

The $25 million Science Learning Campus hasn’t been built yet—construction is starting this fall—so you’ll have to wait awhile to relive your U2 concert experience at the aquarium.


More from mental floss studios