As far as I know hexagons in space are not common. The only natural hexagonal shape I know of out there is the extraordinary storm cloud on the north pole of Saturn. However here on Earth, this shape is everywhere, bees use hexagons in building their hives. Hexagons hide in plain sight within our bodies, our skin and our DNA. The humble pencil is hexagonal to maximise its packing potential and help it not roll of your desk.
The six-sided shape fits together perfectly with no gaps. Apparently, the geometry of a hexagon uses the least amount of material to hold the most weight. Hexagons can, therefore, take a lot of force even if they are made from light material. The James Webb Space Telescope mirrors are made of Beryllium alloys. This is a very lightweight metal consisting of closely packed hexagonal structures within itself. The skeleton behind each of the eighteen mirrors is also created with hexagonal shapes which makes each section lighter while also maintaining its strength.
In 2021 a new set of hexagons will launch into space onboard an Ariane 5 Rocket. Eighteen perfect hexagonal mirrors will be carefully folded and loaded inside the rocket. Yes, it is hard to imaging mirrors folding however this is superb engineering. The James Webb Space Telescope mirror is made up of 18 individual hexagons. Each mirror is 1.42 Metres ( 4.3 feet) in diameter the entire primary mirror system is 6.5 Metres (21 feet) in diameter. The 18 hexagonal shapes fit together perfectly with no gaps, thereby maximising the light- gathering power of the primary mirror.
The surface of these collective mirrors will in time be the recipient of ancient light from distant stars and galaxies. The JWST will bring us fresh new insight into the building of our universe. This magnificent telescope is coming into being by the efforts of NASA, ESA and CSA ( Canadian Space Agency) There are many other participating countries including Ireland I am proud to say. These hexagons together with the vast data potential of this space telescope consequently lends itself to STEM or STEAM activities.
The James Webb Space Telescope looks more like an interstellar spacecraft than a telescope. Its mirror system is beyond beautiful, because of its visual perfection. To me, the JWST primary mirror is a work of art. The sunshield protecting its brains ( computer, communication etc) is the size of a tennis court. Everything about the JWST is ambitious in a big way.
The telescope will end up one million four hundred kilometres from Earth. Therefore when it is deployed, it has to work first time. Because there will be no space shuttle travelling out that far to fix any anomalies. This unfolding subsequently must be perfect and will take months to carry out. The adventurous nature of this telescope, its build, launch and ambitions have inspired me to bring it to the attention of school children.
At a recent Space Camp I had a small group, therefore an opportunity to introduce it. I pre-prepared 18 gold hexagons within four-inch squares. In previous groups some children displayed difficulties in cutting straight lines and to some children concentrating is difficult. I figured it was best to keep the plan simple by good preparation. With a small group, each child had several chances to help build a replica of the JWST mirror.
In advance, I drew up 18 hexagons in white gel pen on a black mount board. Hence guidelines were in place to receive the individual mirrors. After explaining the JWST in small bite-size chunks the children were keen to start the build. It was great to have a small group as it slowed everything down and each child placed their glue and their mirrors very carefully. They were extremely careful to line up their hexagons with my lines.
They were very proud when it was finished. We watched a video of how the telescope will unfold in space. The watched the clock on the video. Some said, “OMG it takes a whole month to unfold the sunshield”. Then one lad said ” but sure it has taken many years to get it into space, so it’s good to take it slow and be careful about it ” the rest of the kids agreed with him.
The European Space Agency sent me some posters so because my group was small each child when home with one.They show ESA’s fleet across the spectrum incl JWST. See that JWST video here
Article on the making of the JWST Mirrors
Article about Hexagons in nature
Slideshow with images of our JWST mirror build