NASA says the James Webb Space Telescope has reached a critical milestone: the preeminent deep-space flying observatory is now fully developed, with receipts to prove it.
The U.S. space agency released a group of photos this week that demonstrate Webb’s ability to take razor-sharp pictures of the universe, with precision beyond even engineers’ wildest expectations.
The test images show not only that the alignment of Webb’s four science instruments is complete, but that the telescope is looking into an abyss of twinkling stars, upon stars, upon stars.
“These images profoundly changed the way I see the universe,” Scott Acton, Webb’s wavefront sensing and control scientist at Ball Aerospace, said in a statement. “We are surrounded by a symphony of creation; there are galaxies everywhere! I hope everyone in the world can see them.”
NASA’s Webb Telescope just got some great news
NASA released a group of photos this week that demonstrate Webb’s ability to take razor-sharp pictures of the universe,
For the test, Webb pointed to a portion of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, revealing a deep, dense field of hundreds of thousands of stars, recorded on all of the observatory’s sensors. Although images from space telescopes sometimes recreate color as people’s eyes perceive them, other times they are selected to highlight specific features. The engineers chose the scarlet palette to emphasize the contrast.
Image resolution is “as good as physically possible” for the size of the telescope, according to a NASA blog post about the milestone achievement. From now on, the only changes will be small periodic adjustments to the primary mirror segments.
The telescope has come a long way since its first snapshot in February, showing 18 distinct golden fuzzy spots representing a star. NASA promised further calibration of the instrument would refine its ability to make the star look like a star. In mid-March, a new photo delivered on that promise: a star in Ursa Major, crystalline and fiery red with large spikes.
The telescope has come a long way since its first snapshot in February, showing 18 distinct golden fuzzy spots representing a star.
“Just look at (that lined up Webb photo) on your phone, all you see is that star,” NASA associate administrator and former astronaut Bob Cabana said during an independent briefing on Tuesday. “But if you spread it out with your fingers, there are galaxies behind this star that have never been seen before, and it’s going to be absolutely amazing.”
Webb, a collaboration between NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, will observe some of the oldest and faintest lights in the universe. The powerful telescope will study a period of less than 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the first stars and galaxies were born. Scientists will also use it to peer into the atmospheres of planets outside our solar system, called exoplanets. Findings of water and methane, for example, could be signs of potential habitability or biological activity – the main ingredients of life.
Astronomers predict the telescope will facilitate a golden age in our understanding of the cosmos, providing never-before-seen snapshots of space billions of light-years away.
“These images profoundly changed the way I see the universe.”
The team is now moving forward with the final stages, known as commissioning the science instruments. The process will take about two months before the telescope is finally ready to do what it was meant to do: conduct groundbreaking research.
Each instrument – NIRCam, NIRISS, MIRI and NIRspec – is a complex array of detectors with custom lenses, masks, filters and equipment that help it do science. The specialized features of these instruments will be configured and operated in different combinations to confirm their research readiness, according to NASA.
Part of this process will also involve pointing the telescope at different areas of the sky where the total amount of solar radiation hitting the observatory will vary to confirm that its temperature remains stable while changing targets. The mirrors will also be checked regularly to ensure that they have maintained their aligned positions.
NASA officials said a selection of stunning, jaw-dropping photos will be released in June at full resolution with accompanying science data. The agency did not reveal which celestial targets would be among these early photos.