The James Webb Telescope is one step closer to taking its place as the successor to the Hubble Telescope. After launching on December 25, the telescope has been going through a complex process to get set up in order to start taking high-resolution photos of the cosmos. In a milestone event, it has aligned all of its mirrors and just took its first fully focused test image of a star. The results are even better than the NASA team hoped.
“We have the highest resolution infrared images taken from space ever,” said Scott Acton, Wavefront Sensing and Controls Scientist. “We have exceeded every expectation. The telescope has performed better than the models said it should.”
The test image shows a bright star in the center with galaxies and stars in the background. The image is crystal clear and is an exciting preview of what is to come when JWT is fully operational.
“You not only see the star and the spikes from the diffraction of the star, but you see other stars in the field that are tightly focused, just like we expect, and all sorts of other interesting structures in the background,” explains NASA engineer Lee Feinberg.
The results elated the entire team, who has spent decades working up to this moment.
“More than 20 years ago, the Webb team set out to build the most powerful telescope that anyone has ever put in space and came up with an audacious optical design to meet demanding science goals,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Today we can say that design is going to deliver.”
The telescope was able to achieve the test image following the critical step to align all of its 18 primary mirrors. Most recently, the team also completed an alignment stage called “fine phasing.” This means that every optical parameter of the telescope was tested and, incredibly, everything performed even better than expected.
Although this is great news, the alignment phase isn't over just yet. Started in early February, it is a process that takes three months to complete. Still, this initial test photo is an incredible incentive for the world to watch and wait for what James Webb can deliver. The team will spend the next six weeks fine-tuning all of the imaging instruments. By early May, they should be all set to proceed with preparing science instruments.
As long as the process goes smoothly, we can look forward to having James Webb's first high-resolution look at the cosmos this summer.