The team behind NASA’s James Webb Telescope released some of the first images from the much-anticipated observatory on Friday (Feb. 11). The main photo, which doesn’t even hint at the power James Webb Telescope will bring to the universe once it’s fully operational, shows a star called HD 84406 and is only a portion of the mosaic taken over 25 hours beginning on Feb. 2, during the ongoing process to align the observatory’s segmented mirror.
The James Webb Telescope is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble and about three times bigger. It is designed to see the light from the first stars and galaxies that shone about 13.5 billion years ago.
James Webb Telescope is now 48 days out from its Christmas Day launch and in the midst of a commissioning process expected to last about six months. The James Webb Telescope spent the first month unfolding from its launch configuration and trekking out nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth.
The James Webb Telescope reached its destination last week at a spot behind the Earth called the second Lagrange Point, or L2, where the gravitational equilibrium will allow the craft to maintain an orbit. Work now begins on commissioning and calibrating the instruments, including the roughly 21-foot mirror system built by Colorado-based Ball Aerospace to capture the light from objects.
“The first images are going to be ugly,” Jane Rigby, James Webb Telescope operations project scientist, said during a news conference held on Jan. 8 as the James Webb Telescope began the process of unstowing its mirrors. “It is going to be blurry. We’ll [have] 18 of these little images all over the sky.”
Lockheed Martin, one of Colorado’s largest aerospace companies, built the Near Infrared Camera — which will be the primary instrument to capture images. The camera will also be used to help align the 18 hexagons that make up the mirror that looks like a golden honeycomb.
And the photograph does indeed show multiple views of HD 84406, the star that James Webb Telescope scientists recently announced they had chosen to look at first. “Star light, star bright … the first star James Webb Telescope will see is HD 84406, a sun-like star about 260 light-years away,” NASA officials wrote on Twitter on Jan. 28.
Another major deployment was of a much smaller secondary mirror, supported by three struts. NASA said when light hits the 18-section mirror, it will reflect off and bounce to the 2.4-foot secondary mirror, which will send the light to the onboard instruments.
“The mirror deployments went beautifully, like the other deployments. It all feels so much more real now that we have a complete James Webb Telescope,” Lystrup said.
HD 84406 is in the constellation Ursa Major, or Big Bear, but is not visible from Earth without a telescope. But it was a perfect early target for James Webb Telescope because its brightness is steady and the observatory can always spot it, so launch or deployment delays wouldn’t affect the plan.
Oddly, James Webb Telescope won’t be able to observe HD 84406 later in its tenure; once the James Webb Telescope is focused, this star will be too bright to look at. Previously, James Webb Telescope personnel have said that the telescope will be seeing fairly sharply by late April.
Even as the James Webb Telescope works to hone its vision, a second key process is taking place in the background as the observatory sends the remaining heat from its time on Earth out into space. Because James Webb Telescope is tuned to study the universe in infrared light, which also registers as heat, the observatory must be incredibly cold to obtain accurate data.
NASA scientists expect that the golden primary mirror will reach temperatures as low as minus 370 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 223 degrees Celsius or 50 degrees Kelvin); instruments must be even colder, according to an agency statement.