NASA held a press conference Monday morning to discuss the precise alignment of the Webb Space Telescope and the spacecraft’s upcoming science operations. The space agency also released telescope images that dazzlingly show Webb’s progress.
“I am delighted to report that the telescope alignment has been completed with even better performance than we anticipated,” said Michael McElwain, project scientist for Webb Observatory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. , at a NASA press conference. “This is an extraordinary milestone for humanity.”
Webb is at an observation point called L2 nearly a million miles from Earth, where he will travel further back in time than the Hubble Space Telescope. (Hubble will continue to work alongside Webb once the latter is up and running.)
The main scientific objectives of the 10 billion dollar telescope are to study how stars are born and give rise to planetary systems, to study the evolution of galaxies, exoplanets and objects in our solar system, and to observe the first light of the universe, with the hope that we can find out how the first stars and galaxies appeared.
Preparing and testing the telescope’s science instruments (a process called commissioning) will take about two months. Only after the startup is complete can Webb begin taking the science images that will define his time in space.
But some images are already being collected to ensure the telescope is working properly. Webb’s coolest instrument, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), recently took a test image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a Milky Way satellite galaxy that was previously photographed by the telescope’s infrared array camera. Spitzer spacecraft, now retired.
Webb’s image of the same region makes Spitzer’s image look like a finger painting, showing interstellar gas clearly distributed throughout the star field. Stars, spots, according to Spitzer, are seven-pointed beacons of light in the MIRI test.
“This is a very good scientific example of what Webb will do for us in the years to come,” Christopher Evans, Webb project scientist at the European Space Agency, said at the press conference. Evans said Spitzer was useful for studies of objects like the Large Magellanic Cloud, but (as you can see) his images were limited by their resolution. Webb is much less limited. “It will give us for the first time an unobstructed view of processes in a different galaxy, cutting through the dust,” Evans said.
Webb’s near-infrared spectrograph (NIRSPEC) is also a big improvement over previous space telescope technology. Evans said that the oldest space observatories could only see the spectra of one target at a time; NIRSPEC will be able to observe 100 targets simultaneously. It’s a boon to the thousands of scientists who hope to use Webb’s data in their research.
Webb’s next steps will focus on taking images of his science targets, known as early launch observations. Not only will these be Webb’s first scientific target images, but they will be the first color-processed images. (Webb sees the cosmos in infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, but images will translate to visible light.)
Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said during the briefing that the main differences between the most recent images and those to come are that the former were taken to test the telescope’s ability to see clearly, while that seconds will test the telescope’s ability to image scientific targets. Pontoppidan didn’t specify what Webb’s team will capture in early launch observations: The targets are a “surprise,” he said.
Based on these early results, it looks like Webb will be something of an intergalactic palantir, taking scientists to various parts of deep space that were previously inaccessible. It’s the closest thing to actually being there for the childhood of the universe.
The telescope was designed to operate for at least five years, but its ultra-precise launch in December means the telescope can have enough fuel to stay in position for more than 20 years.