The James Webb Space Telescope is ready to observe the universe.
The space observatory’s massive mirror, capable of peering into the most distant reaches of space, is now completely aligned, according to the NASA’s Webb team.
Hailed as the world’s premier space observatory, Webb has successfully completed a number of steps within the past few months that were crucial for aligning its 18 gold mirror segments.
The mirror is so large that it had to be folded to fit inside the rocket for its Dec. 25 launch. After reaching an orbit a million miles from Earth in January, Webb began the careful process of unfolding and aligning its mirror.
Webb will be able to peer inside the atmospheres of exoplanets and observe some of the first galaxies created after the universe began by observing them through infrared light, which is invisible to the human eye.
The first high-resolution images Webb collects of the cosmos aren’t expected until the end of June since the observatory’s instruments still need to be calibrated. But test results released by NASA on Thursday show the clear, well-focused images that the observatory’s four instruments are capable of capturing. Together, these images share the telescope’s full field of view. Webb’s mirrors are directing focused light from space into each instrument and those instruments are capturing images.
For the test, Webb observed a small neighboring satellite galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. The galaxy’s dense field of hundreds of thousands of stars can be seen in the test images.
“These remarkable test images from a successfully aligned telescope demonstrate what people across countries and continents can achieve when there is a bold scientific vision to explore the universe,” said Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The telescope team expects that the observatory may even exceed the goals it was meant to achieve because it’s already performing better than expected.
“These images have profoundly changed the way I see the universe,” said Scott Acton, Webb wavefront sensing and controls scientist at Ball Aerospace, in a statement. “We are surrounded by a symphony of creation; there are galaxies everywhere! It is my hope that everyone in the world can see them.”
A previous image shared in March also showed that Webb can use the individual segments of its mirror as one giant 21-foot, 4-inch (6.5-metre) mirror and capture the light from a single star.
For the next couple months, the team will ensure all of the science instruments are calibrated.
Each instrument has a number of specialized detectors with custom equipment to help achieve Webb’s science objectives, and all of the instruments have to be configured before they can be declared ready.
And this summer, we’ll see Webb’s first glimpses that could unlock the mysteries of the universe.