JUAB COUNTY, Utah (ABC4) – When the James Webb Space Telescope departs Earth and heads into the ethers of space on Dec. 18, it’ll be taking a bit of Utah with it.
Quite a bit, actually.
The Webb is touted by NASA as the largest, most powerful, and complex space telescope ever built and launched into space. The soon-to-be orbiting observatory’s design and function are highlighted by the use of a 21 foot, 4 inch-wide interlocking mirror of 18 gold-plated pieces made from something called beryllium.
When it comes together, the mirror resembles a large, yellow honeycomb, an unintentional nod to the material’s origin in the Beehive State.
The material used to create the massive goldenrod mirror that will enable scientists and researchers to obtain a better understanding of the final frontier and perhaps even the beginning of space and time itself was mined entirely in Utah at the Spor Moutain mining spot in Juab County. In fact, the location, which is operated by the Materion mining company, is considered to be the planet’s most plentiful source for beryllium, accounting for 65% of the global yield in 2020. Some years, that number can get as high as 85%, according to government agencies.
What makes beryllium, a pure element found on the periodic table (remember that from high school?), so valuable are the properties that make it perfect for space travel, according to Utah Geological Survey Senior Geologist Stephanie Mills.
“It’s a metal and it’s very lightweight,” Mills explains to ABC4.com. “It’s able to withstand high temperatures and things like that, which makes it ideal for aerospace and defense applications, which is where most of it gets used in today’s economy.”
In addition to giant space mirrors, beryllium has been implemented in components for missiles, high-speed aircraft, and even Formula One race cars. For a brief period, some even experimented with high-end bicycles made from the material.
“You would pay a lot for that. It’s the same thing as carbon fiber or titanium. The whole purpose of using those materials is to make it a performance piece that operates faster and lighter. While not compromising the strength, it’s great for that,” Mills says when asked of beryllium bicycles (she’s right, by the way, a beryllium bicycle made by American Bicycle Manufacturing was showcased some time ago for $25,000).
The upcoming voyage on the Webb telescope won’t be the first trip to space for Utah-born beryllium. NASA states that product extracted from Spor Mountain has been used in exploration projects since the Project Mercury days of the late 1950s. It has since been used on space shuttles, the International Space Station, a couple of Mars rovers, and other ventures.
Naturally, a resource this valuable also has a fascinating history of discovery dashed with a bit of scandal. When beryllium was found at Spor Mountain, along with the recognition of its world-class deposits in the early 1960s, the fervor to claim as much of the land and its mining rights rivaled scenes from a piece of Wild West fiction. Mills wrote in her dissertation on the material that events such as covert nighttime drilling, armed guards, sabotage, gunfire, high-speed chases, and a brutal beating of a lawyer by the use of a shovel highlighted the Mining War at Topaz Mountain.
Things finally settled down in 1968, which was conveniently one year before the moon landing by the crew on Apollo 11. Since then, there have been no reports of attempts at claim-jumping or garden tool-related attacks.
“Once it got started, it’s been very calm and under the same owner for the duration and it’s been mined continuously since,” Mills states. “But yeah, the drama of getting there was kind of quite amusing.”
Despite a rocky history in mining, the extracted beryllium to be used on the Webb telescope has a bright future. Scientists at NASA say that the telescope will be able to see what the universe looked like around a quarter of billion years after the Big Bang, which will be the closest to the beginning of time that humans have ever seen.
But the raw beryllium in the mirrors, which are shaped like hexagons by practical design, likely saw the Utah landscape first once pulled out of the Spor Mountains.