The camera system on the James Webb Space Telescope is fully online and operational, and NASA has begun the process of aligning the mirrors so that it can begin to capture its first photos.
James Webb Telescope Reaches its Orbital Destination
The James Webb Space Telescope reached its orbital Destination on January 24 and has since been working to power on all of its image capture systems. That process concluded on Monday and all of the new telescope’s science instruments, including its primary camera the Near Infrared Camera (or NIRCam) are operational.
According to the University of Arizona, it will now begin the process of aligning all 18 mirror segments so that they work together as one.
Turning on the instruments was the first in a series of what the University describes as “critical steps” that also include turning off heaters to begin a long cool-down process along with an alignment period that will take several months to complete.
✨ Our NIRCam instrument's detectors saw their 1st photons of starlight! While #NASAWebb is not yet ready for science, this is the first of many steps to capture images that are at first unfocused, used to slowly fine-tune the optics: https://t.co/Sak6r7Ncex #UnfoldTheUniverse pic.twitter.com/vHRX8x9ki2
— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) February 3, 2022
“When NIRCam reaches about minus 244 degrees Fahrenheit, likely later this week, Webb’s optics team will be ready to begin meticulously aligning the telescope’s 18 primary mirror segments to work together as a single mirror surface,” The University of Arizona explains.
“NASA is targeting star HD84406 to begin this process. It will be the first object NIRCam sees when photons of light hit the instrument’s powered-on detectors. However, it won’t be the first image that is shared with the public. That object has not been chosen yet, and NASA will likely release the image this summer.”
18 Mirror Segments Working Together
NASA explains that the three-month process of aligning the telescope was developed and demonstrated on a 1/6 scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope. The team says that they have simulated and rehearsed the process many times and are now ready to implement it on the real thing.
Even from a million miles away, we’ll be watching you. 👀
Our researchers will lead over 400 hours of observations in @NASAWebb's 1st year so that we can learn how exoplanets form, what they’re made of, and if any might be habitable: https://t.co/VlulmboKpl #UnfoldTheUniverse pic.twitter.com/AH0mZGJ13Q
— NASA Ames (@NASAAmes) January 31, 2022
“To work together as a single mirror, the telescope’s 18 primary mirror segments need to match each other to a fraction of a wavelength of light — approximately 50 nanometers,” NASA explains. “To put this in perspective, if the Webb primary mirror were the size of the United States, each segment would be the size of Texas, and the team would need to line the height of those Texas-sized segments up with each other to an accuracy of about 1.5 inches.”
The process will take place in seven phases, culminating in a fully aligned telescope that is ready to start its observations. NASA explains in detail each of the seven stages on the James Webb Space Telescope website.
Image credits: Header image by NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez