The world’s first space observatory has successfully completed a number of critical steps to align the 18 Golden Mirror segments. After verifying this achievement from Webb’s list, the telescope team expects that the observatory may exceed the goals it was supposed to achieve.
On March 11, Webb completed “fine staging,” a critical phase that ensures that Webb’s visual capabilities are working as intended. During the tests, the team had no problems and decided that Webb could observe the light from distant objects and bring that light into the scientific instruments on board the observatory.
For the test, Webb focused on a star called 2MASS J17554042 + 6551277. A red filter was used to show the contrast. Webb’s observing capabilities are so sensitive that individual galaxies and stars behind the star can also be seen in the image.
“The images are focused together as precisely as the laws of physics allow,” said Marshall Perrin, deputy Webb telescope scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. “But while we were focusing on those bright stars, we couldn’t help but see the rest of the universe turn into focus behind them, to see the farthest stars and galaxies on the horizon.”
While the first high-resolution images that Webb collects of the universe are not expected until the end of June, new test images released by NASA on Wednesday show Webb can use individual parts of his mirror as a giant 21-foot, 4 6.5-meter mirror that captures light from one star.
“The geometric images we’ve seen today are as sharp and crisp as the images Hubble could capture, but at a wavelength of light that is completely invisible to humans, and that causes the invisible universe to be drawn into a very sharp focus,” said Jane Rigby, Web Operations Project Scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center. NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland.
said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of the science mission at NASA’s directorate in Washington. “Today we can say that the design will be successful.”
Although the process is ongoing, the team is encouraged to see Webb doing better than expected. Now that the micro-gradient stage is complete, the near-infrared camera, which serves as the telescope’s primary imager, is aligned with the mirror.
Webb also took a new “selfie” using a lens that focuses on taking pictures of actual mirror segments. The portrait shows mirror segments aligning as they capture the starlight in unison.
Finishing the meticulous staging, and all the critical steps ahead of it, also brings a sigh of relief to the team.
“All the nights I didn’t sleep and the fears I had, are now behind us,” said Zurbuchen. “There is still a mountain to climb, but we have climbed that mountain now.”
Over the next two months, the team will finalize the final steps of the alignment process and ensure all scientific instruments are calibrated.
“We’re exactly where we thought we’d be at this point about three months after launch and that puts us on track to complete the rest of commissioning within six months after launch and switch to science starting this summer,” Perrin said.
Once Webb is fully operational, Rigby said, he will “move into a very difficult year of scientific operations.”