The recent release of the highest-resolution images of the universe in infrared that had ever been seen before, captured by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, would not have been possible without the Defense Department’s ability to secure strategic and critical materials necessary for the mission.
At the top of that list is the unique element beryllium.
Invisible to X-rays and with a stiffness six times greater than steel, beryllium is an element in a class by itself. Due to its properties, DOD and the Department of Energy use beryllium in many important technologies, such as missile and weapons defense systems, surveillance satellites, fighter jet optical targeting devices and much more.
Building a telescope capable of capturing never-before-seen details of entire galaxies required the development of a lightweight, durable material that would maintain a stable shape in extreme conditions during the journey into space. The shift from glass mirrors to beryllium-based mirrors augmented the resolution of the space telescope’s captured imagery.
“Beryllium is a really good material for that,” said Payl Geithner, a deputy project manager for Webb based at Goddard Space Flight Center, Md. “It’s really stiff, and once it gets below about negative 300 degrees Fahrenheit, it basically stops shrinking. This is important because Webb, insulated by a sun shield, operates at about [30 kelvins, or negative 406 degrees Fahrenheit] and only experiences temperature swings of plus or minus 30 [kelvins], never reaching a temperature that would cause it to expand.”
Lee Feinberg, the telescope manager for Webb at Goddard, said that beryllium is also advantageous because its stiffness makes it better able to withstand the high vibro-acoustic levels experienced during takeoff.
Beryllium, however, is a difficult element to extract, and the DOD has recognized its strategic value for some time. In 2003, Congress directed a study on the domestic beryllium industrial base. The following year, based on the report’s results, Congress appropriated $3 million under the Defense Production Act, a Title III program for the preliminary design of a new primary beryllium facility. In total, the DOD has invested $85 million for capital equipment and process efficiencies to ensure domestic availability of high-purity beryllium.
Through this program, Materion Corp. created the first beryllium metal production facility in more than 50 years and refined the process for transforming beryllium ore into the sturdy, lightweight metal required by NASA for the mirrors used on Webb.
The current investment program with Materion Corp., awarded in 2019, is on cost and schedule to deliver facility enhancements by April 2023 and full production capacity by the end of next year.
The DOD has also long been a silent partner of NASA, which was born from the tensions of the Cold War and the space race with the Soviet Union. Since laying the groundwork for the historic moon landing on July 20, 1969, DOD has worked closely on the research and development of technologies in a mutually beneficial relationship with NASA. With inventions like the Hubble and Webb space telescopes, the U.S. has been instrumental in the scientific understanding of the universe.
Discoveries like this wouldn’t be possible without the right materials. The DOD continues to advance efforts to enable U.S. innovation and to improve supply chain resilience and protect against material shortages. In response to President Biden’s Executive Order 14017 on U.S. supply chains, the DOD has developed a strategic roadmap to increase domestic production capacity of defense-critical materials, like beryllium.
“The U.S. cannot have a secure, reliable domestic supply chain without robust organic capabilities,” said Deborah G. Rosenblum, the assistant defense secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs. “It is critically important for the U.S.’s future economic security that we establish end-to-end, commercial-scale, domestic supply chains across numerous strategic materials supply chains.”