An update on the James Webb Space Telescope is hitting your newsfeed again as it makes another landmark step in its journey to help us explore the universe. The telescope set off in late December 2021, with the mission to change how we study deep space forever.
The Optimist Daily previously reported on how the Webb telescope reached its final destination and began slowly cooling its cameras. Now, NASA is patiently on stand-by for each camera to cool before they can start gathering data in earnest. While they wait, an alignment process of multiple telescope parts and observatory mirrors is starting giving us a first glimpse of the stars.
How does the telescope setup work?
A guiding instrument called the Fine Guidance Sensor (FGS) works with each component to align it perfectly for its job over a six-week process called “multi-instrument multi-field alignment.” Switching between different cameras in space is quite the challenge, and by setting the camera up in this way allows for multiple instruments to be used at the same time.
The first component aligned was Webb’s near-infrared camera (NIRCam), a camera that can capture a subset of infrared light just outside of the range humans can see. This technology is used commonly to take pictures in space as the wavelength of near-infrared is longer than that of visible light, meaning it can pass through dense gas and dust clouds in space better than shorter wavelengths.
What does the first image show?
Last week, the world got its first glimpse from the new telescope. To test the NIRCam, NASA took a trial picture to evaluate the alignment. In the middle of the image, you can see a star, named 2MASS J17554042+6551277, located 2,000 light-years from Earth. Around the bright shining ball of gas, even more distant stars and galaxies can be spotted. Although this image is basically the equivalent of a printer alignment test page, it really is a breathtaking sight!
“We have fully aligned and focused the telescope on a star, and the performance is beating specifications. We are excited about what this means for science,” said Ritva Keski-Kuha, deputy optical telescope element manager for Webb. “We now know we have built the right telescope.”
Four other instruments still need to be aligned to enable “good focus and sharp images in all the instruments,” as Webb deputy senior project scientist Jonathan Gardner put it. Once these points are aligned, get ready for a flood of beautiful images to be beamed back down to Earth ranging from galaxies, to exoplanets, and maybe even alien life.