How the search for alien life helped make your smartphone screen possible



In December, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and its partners plan to launch the James Webb Space Telescope. A technological marvel 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Telescope, it has sufficient visual acuity to examine the atmospheres of distant planets in our solar system for evidence of extraterrestrial life.

The Webb, a NASA collaboration with space agencies in Europe and Canada, will perform its work in an orbit around the sun 1 million kilometers from our world. Here on Earth, however, some of the technology that entered the giant telescope is also visible when you look at the screen of a smartphone, smartwatch, tablet or laptop with the latest high resolution screens.

The connection between mankind’s most daring experience in deep space exploration and the gadgets in your hands is the technology to produce super high precision giant mirrors and lenses. Such an “optic” was not possible until NASA asked a handful of companies over 20 years ago to bid on the rights to find a way.

The result, developed by a company called Tinsley Integrated Optical Systems, was a technique that enabled the production of very large mirror surfaces that are so nearly perfect that the imperfections on their surface are only a few atoms thick. And this technology can also be involved in the production of many displays – using lasers to transform very large sheets of silicon deposited on glass – dramatically reducing the costs of electronic components for some displays.

The transfer of know-how from space telescopes to display manufacturing is the latest in a long line of commercial technologies with a similar lineage, from digital camera sensors to the Dustbuster, which was developed by Black & Decker in as part of its partnership with NASA. .

The laser company Coherent’s line beam system, used to produce high-resolution OLED displays, incorporates advances in the optics of the Webb telescope.


Coherent, Inc.

A classic example is the Apollo Guidance Computer, the first general-purpose, multitasking and interactive digital laptop, which was present on both the Apollo Command Module and the Lunar Lander. In his use of then-new components like some of the earliest silicon chips (aka integrated circuits), he paved the way for our modern world, from the internet to the bowels of the same smartphones whose screens are in part due to the James Webb Space Telescope. .

Since the Apollo missions, NASA’s need for engineers to accomplish feats that were impossible as it spelled out its demands, combined with its willingness to fund such a development, have prompted companies to develop new technologies that ultimately affect the world. everyday life.

Funding for innovation by NASA and the Department of Defense has long been the preferred US ‘industrial policy’ method of using government money to supplement private investment. in new technologies. The difference between American industrial policy and that practiced in many other countries is that the United States government has long preferred to pay for research and development rather than helping the expansion of industries based on these innovations. This often means that technologies like the LCD screen are invented here, but lead to giant industries elsewhere.

With the Webb Telescope, the connection between space technology and the technology of normal life is much more than the mere transfer of knowledge gained through research and development carried out with NASA pennies. It turns out that the same factory where the space telescope’s mirrors were polished is now where the optics needed to make OLED displays – short for organic light-emitting diode, the displays of the latest generation of smartphones are made.

Nearly flawless silicon lenses like the one above are essential for high-end displays and were born out of advancements in the development of the Webb Telescope.


Coherent, Inc.

The main mirror of the Webb Telescope, which collects interstellar snapshots, is made up of 18 hexagonal sections, each 1.32 meters in diameter, which will fold origami-like for flight, then unfold into space. to form an area 6.5 meters in diameter, or more than 21 feet. All sections of the gold-plated beryllium mirror must be so crisp that they can collectively focus even the faintest murmur of the farthest celestial body into a detectable image.

Tinsley had previously supplied the corrective lenses that astronauts fitted to the Hubble Space Telescope in 1993, correcting a problem that had caused blurry images and allowing it to capture the deep space images for which Hubble has been famous ever since. Tinsley later won the contract to manufacture the Webb mirrors.

The timing of the completion of manufacturing of these mirrors was fortuitous, said Brandon Turk, vice president of Tinsley, which since 2015 has been a subsidiary of laser systems company Coherent. In 2012, when engineers completed the last of the sections of the Webb Telescope’s primary mirror, engineers at Coherent, who were in contact with their counterparts at Tinsley, were looking for ways to make larger, more precise lenses for machines that prepare the silicon for transformation. in one of the most important parts of many high resolution flat screens.

These new lenses for the manufacture of screens measured up to 1.85 meters in diameter, more than twice the width of those used before. This is important because in screen manufacturing, such as in microchip manufacturing, the larger the sheet of near-perfect silicon that a company can use, the more screens (or microchips) it can engrave on that sheet, then cut it out. . This means much more efficiency and a lower cost.

One of the earliest uses of silicon chips was the Apollo guidance computer, included in both the command module and the lunar lander. This technology has been widely used in all kinds of computers.


Jesse Rieser for the Wall Street Journal

A challenge for both processes is that the optics that direct the lasers that perform the key steps must be near perfect. And the bigger these glasses, the harder it is to remove blemishes.

Coherent was already making lenses for its own linebeam systems, industrial objects as large as school buses that shoot lasers at sheets of silicon placed on windows, a first step in the manufacture of many screens. But doubling the size of its optics would not have been possible at this point in history without NASA funding for Tinsley’s manufacturing innovations needed for the space telescope’s unprecedented mirrors, says Dr Turk.

Coherent holds a strong position in the market for manufacturing linear beam systems and other specialty lasers and optics, as evidenced by the March 2021 three-way bidding war for the company which ultimately led to a deal for the company. acquisition by competitor II-VI,

says Wayne Lam of CCS Insight, a technology consulting firm.

“I love that the people who are trying to create highly polished mirrors for Hubble are ultimately meaning that the technology is migrating to mobile phones, thus enabling the screens we see now,” says Ian Jenks, now at the helm. from screen manufacturing startup SmartKem and previously president of the company. then known as JDS Uniphase,

which was for many years a competitor of Coherent.


What space age technologies do you use every day? Join the conversation below.

As for where technology to make large, near-perfect optics might take humanity next, there are more telescopes on the way – the next thirty-meter telescope, which will be the second largest telescope on Earth when completed, uses technology. Other more commercial applications are also derived from the use of these optics in manufacturing.

One of them, explains a spokesperson for Coherent, is the superconducting tape needed to build future fusion reactors. Each magnet inside such a reactor requires miles of substance, and making it affordable is one of the many requirements for making fusion energy economically viable.

The winding path of innovations, from technologies designed to satisfy our curiosity to those with a substantial cultural and economic impact, shows that John F. Kennedy’s famous exhortation – “We choose not to go to the moon because it is easy , but because it is difficult ”- has meant many advances that otherwise could have happened much later, if at all.

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