James Webb Telescope has been in the process of cooling down and aligning its mirror segments since February 2, after reaching its orbital point beyond the moon on January 24. The James Webb Telescope launched to space on December 25 and will serve as NASA’s most complex and powerful observatory yet.
If the images look a little blurry, that’s to be expected, James Webb Telescope team members said. Right now, the telescope is still in the commissioning phase before it begins collecting data and science observations this summer, when dazzling new images of our universe are expected to be released.
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A special lens within the james webb telescope near-infrared camera (NIRCam) instrument allowed engineers to take a look at James Webb Telescope mirror alignment and to generate a cool view of the telescope, all at the same time. Engineers now also have the assurance that NIRCam is successfully receiving light, which is crucial for its ultimate goal of helping to image objects in space.
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James Webb Telescope latest challenge was a trial run of the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, identifying dots of starlight from the same star in each of the 18 hexagonal segments of its massive mirror. The telescope aimed its mirrors at a bright solitary star in the Ursa Major constellation called HD 84406.
NIRCam is capable of taking images of the 18 primary mirror segments, and it generated the selfie for engineering and alignment purposes, NASA said on its blog Friday (Feb. 11). The image shows a bright mirror segment pointing to a bright star, while the others are not yet aligned in that direction. Engineers are moving the mirrors into alignment for eventual science observations in a few months.
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Images like the ones NASA shared on Friday can help the James Webb Telescope team make sure the mirrors are perfectly aligned before the observatory sets its sights on exoplanets and distant galaxies, forever changing the way we see the universe.
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“NIRCam will be used throughout nearly the entire alignment of the telescope’s mirrors,” NASA said of the alignment process. “It is, however, important to note that NIRCam is operating far above its ideal temperature while capturing these initial engineering images, and visual artifacts can be seen in the mosaic.”
“The James Webb Telescope team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope are proceeding. We were so happy to see that light makes its way into NIRCam,” said Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the NIRCam instrument and regents professor of astronomy at University of Arizona, in a statement.
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The mirror selfie was captured by a special lens inside NIRCam that can image the primary mirror rather than what James Webb Telescope sees in space. The lens mainly exists for engineering and alignment, so it was a bonus image that made the James Webb Telescope team say “holy cow,” said Lee Feinberg, James Webb Telescope optical telescope element manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
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The spacecraft includes a five-layer sunshield to protect James Webb Telescope giant mirror and instruments from the sun’s blistering rays. James Webb Telescope equipment needs to be kept at a very frigid negative 370 degrees Fahrenheit (negative 223 degrees Celsius) to operate.
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Some of James Webb Telescope instruments need to be even colder to operate, so they will continue to cool down over the next few months. Future images captured by James Webb Telescope will only become clearer and more detailed as the spacecraft cools and the mirrors align.