The James Webb Space Telescope is nearing completion of the first phase of the months-long process of aligning the observatory’s primary mirror using the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument.
The team’s challenge was twofold: confirm that NIRCam was ready to collect light from celestial objects, and then identify starlight from the same star in each of the 18 primary mirror segments. The result is an image mosaic of 18 randomly organized dots of starlight, the product of Webb’s unaligned mirror segments all reflecting light from the same star back at Webb’s secondary mirror and into NIRCam’s detectors.
What looks like a simple image of blurry starlight now becomes the foundation to align and focus the telescope in order for Webb to deliver unprecedented views of the universe this summer. Over the next month or so, the team will gradually adjust the mirror segments until the 18 images become a single star.
“The entire Webb 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,” says Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the NIRCam instrument and regents professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona.
During the image capturing process that began on 2 February, Webb was repointed to 156 different positions around the predicted location of the star and generated 1 560 images using NIRCam’s 10 detectors, amounting to 54 gigabytes of raw data.
The entire process lasted nearly 25 hours, but notedly the observatory was able to locate the target star in each of its mirror segments within the first six hours and 16 exposures. These images were then stitched together to produce a single, large mosaic that captures the signature of each primary mirror segment in one frame. The images shown here are only a center portion of that larger mosaic, a huge image with over 2-billion pixels.
“This initial search covered an area about the size of the full Moon because the segment dots could potentially have been that spread out on the sky,” says Marshall Perrin, deputy telescope scientist for Webb and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute.
“Taking so much data right on the first day required all of Webb’s science operations and data processing systems here on Earth working smoothly with the observatory in space right from the start. And we found light from all 18 segments very near the center early in that search! This is a great starting point for mirror alignment.”
Each unique dot visible in the image mosaic is the same star as imaged by each of Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments, a treasure trove of detail that optics experts and engineers will use to align the entire telescope. This activity determined the post-deployment alignment positions of every mirror segment, which is the critical first step in bringing the entire observatory into a functional alignment for scientific operations.
NIRCam is the observatory’s wavefront sensor and a key imager. It was intentionally selected to be used for Webb’s initial alignment steps because it has a wide field of view and the unique capability to safely operate at higher temperatures than the other instruments. It is also packed with customized components that were designed to specifically aid in the process. NIRCam will be used throughout nearly the entire alignment of the telescope’s mirrors.
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 impact of these artifacts will lessen significantly as Webb draws closer to its ideal cryogenic operating temperatures.
“Launching Webb to space was of course an exciting event, but for scientists and optical engineers, this is a pinnacle moment, when light from a star is successfully making its way through the system down onto a detector,” said Michael McElwain, Webb observatory project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Centre.
Moving forward, Webb’s images will only become clearer, more detail-laden, and more intricate as its other three instruments arrive at their intended cryogenic operating temperatures and begin capturing data.
The first scientific images are expected to be delivered to the world in the summer.
Though this is a big moment, confirming that Webb is a functional telescope, there is much ahead to be done in the coming months to prepare the observatory for full scientific operations using all four of its instruments.