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Gold: Reflecting the Light of the Universe

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It’s important to remember gold is money, but as we focus on gold’s monetary and investment properties, it’s easy to forget the yellow metal has inherent value in and of itself with amazing practical uses.

NASA is currently developing a new telescope scheduled to launch in October 2018. The power of the James Webb Space Telescope  (JWST) will dwarf that of the Hubble Telescope, offering unprecedented resolution and sensitivity. According to an article in Forbes, the telescope’s ability to “see” deep into the infrared spectrum will allow it to image the distant universe to as far back as the first galaxies and even the first stars. Gold will help make this amazing imaging possible.

The JWST will feature 18 gold-coated, hexagonal mirrors. Each mirror spans a diameter of 1.32 meters (4.3 feet). According to Forbes, “When stitched together in a honeycomb pattern, they form an effective surface that will be 6.5 meters (21.5 feet) in diameter, with seven times the light-gathering power of the Hubble Space Telescope.”

the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA

Why gold-coated mirrors? Gold’s properties make it perfect for reflecting and focusing infrared light. It won’t take much gold to coat the telescope’s mirrors. Engineers will form them primarily out of beryllium because the metal exhibits almost no thermal expansion at cryogenic temperatures. In other words, the extreme temperatures in space won’t cause the panels to warp. On the other hand, gold is comparatively temperature sensitive. Once engineers form the panels, they will coat them in a micro-thin layer of gold. Forbes explains the process.

“The coating must be thick enough to cover the mirror entirely, but thin enough to not affect the mirrors at all in terms of expansion/contraction/deformation when the temperatures change. The way to put the gold coating on is through a process known as vacuum vapor deposition. You place the mirrors inside a vacuum chamber, evacuating the air entirely, and then you vaporize a small amount of gold and inject it into the chamber. Areas you don’t want coated (like the back, which will need struts, actuators and flexures attached to them to help focus the mirrors) are masked off, but the smooth, polished surface gets gold atoms deposited on it. This process continues until the gold is 100 nanometers thick.”

That’s not a lot of gold. In fact, it will take less than 2 ounces – a shade over 48 grams to be precise. Gold has intrinsic, industrial, and scientific value. Just a small amount will help the most powerful telescope ever designed function correctly.

Now just think – you can buy gold for yourself! You won’t be able to use it to look into the far reaches of the universe, but you can use it to help build and preserve wealth.

 

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