NASA held a press conference Monday morning to discuss the precise alignment of the Webb Space Telescope and the spacecraft’s upcoming scientific operations. The space agency also released images from the telescope that put Webb’s progress on dazzling display.
“I’m delighted to report that the telescope alignment has been completed with performance even better than we had anticipated,” said Michael McElwain, a Webb observatory project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a NASA press conference. “This is an extraordinary milestone for humanity.”
Webb sits at an observational point called L2 nearly 1 million miles from Earth, where it will look further back in time than the Hubble Space Telescope. (Hubble will continue to operate alongside Webb once the latter is operational).
The $10 billion telescope’s primary science goals are to study how stars are born and give rise to planetary systems, to investigate the evolution of galaxies, exoplanets, and objects in our solar system, and to look at the universe’s earliest light, in the hopes that we can figure out how the first stars and galaxies emerged.
The preparation and testing of the telescope’s science instruments (a process called commissioning) will take about two months to complete. Only once the commissioning is complete can Webb begin taking the scientific images that will define its tenure in space.
But some images are already being collected, to make sure the telescope is functioning properly. Webb’s coldest instrument—the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI)—recently took a test image of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way that was previously imaged by the now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera.
Webb’s image of the same region makes Spitzer’s look like a finger painting, showing interstellar gas clearly distributed across the star field. The stars—blots, in Spitzer’s view—are seven-pointed beacons of light in the MIRI test.
“This is a really nice science example of what Webb will do for us in the coming years,” said Christopher Evans, a Webb project scientist with the European Space Agency, in the press conference. Evans said that Spitzer was useful for surveys of objects like the Large Magellanic Cloud, but (as you may notice) its images were limited by their resolution. Webb is way less limited. “This is just going to give us an amazing view of the processes in a different galaxy for the first time, cutting through the dust,” Evans said.
Webb’s Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSPEC) is also a big upgrade on previous space telescope technology. Evans said that older space observatories have only been able to see spectra one target at a time; NIRSPEC will be able to observe 100 targets simultaneously. That’s a boon for the many thousands of scientists all hoping to use Webb data in their research.
Webb’s next steps will focus on taking images of its science targets, known as early release observations. These will not only be the first images of Webb science targets, but they will be the first images processed into full color. (Webb sees the cosmos in the infrared and near-infrared wavelengths, but the images will be translated into visible light.)
Klaus Pontoppidan, a Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, said in the briefing that the chief differences between the most recent images and the ones to come are that the former were taken to test the telescope’s ability to see clearly, whereas the latter will test the telescope’s ability to image science targets. Pontoppidan wouldn’t elaborate on what Webb team will capture in the early release observations—the targets are a “surprise,” he said.
From these early results, it appears that Webb will be something of an intergalactic palantir, dropping scientists into various parts of deep space that were previously inaccessible. It’s the next best thing to actually being there for the universe’s infancy.
The telescope was designed to operate for five years at minimum, but its ultra-precise launch back in December means the telescope may have enough fuel to stay in position for more than 20 years. Buckle up.