The Webb Space Telescope passed a critical milestone in its commissioning phase, as mission controllers fully aligned the observatory’s main imager.
Before we get into the details of today’s announcement, take a moment to bask in the glory of this new Webb image. The star is called 2MASS J17554042+6551277, and mission controllers use it to align the space telescope’s 18 hexagonal mirrors. But look at it, look at how neat it looks. And look at all those galaxies in the background. Unreal, especially considering this is just a “test” image.
“It’s the future from now on – everything we see will be in the deep field,” Webb Operations Project Scientist Jane Rigby said at a NASA press conference earlier in the day. the day. “The only way for us to make this image sharper would be to make a bigger mirror,” she added.
Rigby and his colleagues met to discuss an important step in the alignment process, the end of the fine-tuning stage on March 11. The telescope’s main imager – the near-infrared camera – is fully aligned, and all 18 segments now function as a single infrared eye that scientists will use to gaze at the cosmos. More lineups are needed, including work with the near-infrared spectrograph, mid-infrared instrument, near-infrared imager, and slitless spectrograph, but Webb is already wowing everyone with his performance.
“This is one of the most magnificent days of my career at NASA,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, during the press conference. “Today we can report that the optics will perform as expected, if not better.”
Webb’s 6.5-meter mirror had to be folded for launch, then aligned with nanoscale precision. Much work remains, such as telescope cooling, other instrument preparations, and the aforementioned alignments, but Webb is on track to enter its science phase in July. At that point, the commissioning team will hand the telescope over to the scientific community and view the infrared universe at resolutions never seen before, according to Zurbuchen. He said the team was nearing the top of the mountain, “but the sleepless nights are now behind us.”
At the press conference, I asked the panel if there were any critical points of failure remaining or if there was still potential for things to go off the rails. Rigby echoed Zurbuchen’s comments, saying the bulk of the work was done and “now if things don’t work out” it will only lead to “partial degradation of science.” That said, the telescope’s temperature is something she’s still studying, as Webb continues to cool. Webb Telescope Assistant Scientist Marshall Perrin chimed in, saying some subsystems might not work at some point, “but we have a lot of redundancy in the electrical systems” and “we’re in really good shape.”
Lee Feinberg, Elements Manager for the Webb Optical Telescope, said the optical performance of the telescope is absolutely phenomenal and “is good if not better than our most optimistic predictions”. The mission’s success so far shows that “we have pioneered a new way to build space telescopes”, an achievement that “will benefit the next generation”. For Perrin, the biggest surprise was how closely Webb’s performance matched models and predictions on the ground. The images are focused together as “finely as the laws of physics allow” for a telescope of this size, he said.
The star in Webb’s new image was “plucked out of the dark,” Rigby said, a “beautiful, boring star with the right amount of brightness.” The image was captured in infrared and then applied through a red filter to optimize visual contrast. As for the spiky appearance of the star, it is the result of diffraction.
Marshall said the team was “almost exactly on schedule.” Rigby said they were on track to meet the “very demanding science requirements” of the mission, but refrained from collecting science data. Rigby said more than 1,000 proposals had been submitted by astronomers requesting access to Webb, with only the “best” selected, adding that the first batch of targets had been selected but not released to the public. She said the first science cycle will see the telescope travel back in time a few million years after the Big Bang, and that closer targets, such as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn and the Trojan asteroids, will also be studied by Webb at times. future peak.
Launched on December 25, 2021, the $10 billion ($14) Webb Telescope is a joint mission of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. The telescope has finally arrived in space after many years of delay, and it now appears to be performing beyond expectations. Webb will provide a new lens for studying older stars and galaxies, the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, and other celestial phenomena.