It’s time to feast on the wonders of Webb.
25 long years and $10 billion have passed between the time the James Webb Space Telescope was first designed and its final launch on December 25, 2021, atop a European Ariane 5 rocket.
Now orbiting the second Lagrange point (L2) beyond the moon, preparations for science missions that will change the shape of astronomy, astrophysics, and many other fields to keep are nearly complete.
But we got a taste of that future over the past few weeks – with test footage sent back by Webb. And while these are just tests, each hints at the unprecedented power of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.
But remember: the real show is yet to come.
1. James Webb Space Telescope alignment image from 2MASS J17554042+6551277
At the end of a procedure called “fine phasing”, the primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – which is made up of 18 hexagonal segments – was brought into focus by aiming the telescope at a singular star, 2MASS J17554042+6551277, along with a few others in its vicinity, on March 11, 2022. It was called the alignment image. However, by combining the 18 separate images, the resolution accuracy was increased to 50 nanometers. And that’s only a fraction of the wavelengths Webb will pick up at the actual start.
Get more updates on this story and more with The planour daily newsletter: Register for free here.
“Although we’ve only seen a few test images of Webb so far, my favorite is probably the alignment image,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) located in Baltimore, Maryland, in a statement emailed to THAT’S TO SAY. “This single star shows that the telescope is almost perfectly in focus, a groundbreaking technical achievement.”
Most people only see the star in the middle – which is admittedly pretty. But the real beauty is the unreasonable abundance of ancient galaxies in the background. “[W]We also see a breathtaking field of distant galaxies; in this brief snapshot, Webb has already reached the entire Universe, giving a glimpse of the science to come,” Pontoppidan added, to THAT’S TO SAY.
And, it turns out, those kinds of cosmic details will naturally occur the longer Webb takes to snap an image. “In a very real sense, when Webb spends more than 20 minutes taking an image, it will show this background of galaxies, rivaling or surpassing the famous Hubble Deep Field,” Pontoppidan said.
2. Webb’s image of a mosaic of 18 stars
In February 2022, the JWST released an incredible handful of 18 stars spread across a black background. But the image is a tip: all the bright stars above are one, and it’s located in the constellation Ursa Major – also called HD 84406. It only appears to be numerous because the segments of Webb’s mirror hadn’t finished the alignment yet.
This apparent cosmic chaos occurred because the telescope’s misaligned mirror segments reflected light back toward the telescope’s instruments. “We aligned and focused the telescope on a star, and the performance exceeded specifications,” Ritva Keski-Kuha, deputy optical telescope element manager for Webb, said in a NASA blog post.
“More than 20 years ago, the JWST team set out to build the most powerful telescope anyone had ever put into space and they came up with an optical design to achieve the science goals,” said Thomas Zurbuchen. , Associate Science Administrator of NASA. Direction of Missions, in the same blog post.
3. Image of the Large Magellanic Cloud taken by the James Webb Telescope
A more recent image from Webb arrived on May 9: an incredible view of the Large Magellanic Cloud – which is a satellite galaxy near the Milky Way, and captured by the coldest instrument aboard the telescope: the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). He zoomed in on a field of stars in the satellite galaxy and tested the imaging capability of the James Webb Space Telescope.
The image was juxtaposed with an older one from the Spitzer Space Telescope (now retired), and it served to highlight the high-resolution power of Webb’s near- and mid-infrared potential. “Webb, with its significantly larger primary mirror and improved detectors, will allow us to see the infrared sky with improved clarity, enabling even more discoveries,” read another NASA blog post.
And all of this is just the beginning. This summer, it will finally start real science missions – with the possibility of providing us with the first “real” picture of atmospheres on extraterrestrial worlds beyond our solar system. Webb will also examine moving objects in our own solar system, providing a highly advanced tracking and imaging system for scientists whose specialty focuses on nearer-Earth objects. It will even help reveal the evolution of ancient and supermassive black holes (the list goes on). One thing is certain: once Webb begins his scientific missions in earnest, updates and new images will increase in frequency. And with each release moving across the media world in waves, the world will enjoy a new kind of astronomy, accelerating to unprecedented speeds in discovery and scientific impact. And we are alive to see it.