German High-Tech at Heart of Webb Telescope

January 2022

The James Webb Telescope that blasted into orbit in December and is intended, among other things, to search for extraterrestrial life, contains crucial technology from the heart of Europe.

Both the telescope’s NIRSpec spectrograph and Miri special camera were made largely in Germany. The former is so sensitive that it could identify the face of a person standing on a mountaintop one hundred kilometers away.

It’s also sensitive to infrared light, giving it powers akin to the stuff of science fiction.

“If someone lit a cigarette on the moon, we could recognize its glow from earth,” NIRSpec co-developer Ralf Ehrenwinker told business newspaper Wirtschaftswoche.

Thanks to its infrared capabilities, the Webb telescope can register radiation that has travelled 13.5 billion light years, from a time only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang that created the known universe.

The NIRSpec spectrograph © ESA