It’s time to feast your eyes on the wonders of Webb.
A long 25 years have passed, along with $10 billion between when the James Webb Space Telescope was first devised and it finally launched on December 25, 2021, atop a European Ariane 5 rocket.
Now in orbit of the second Lagrange point (L2) beyond the moon, it’s nearly completed preparing for science missions that will change the shape of astronomy, astrophysics, and many other fields for keeps.
But we’ve had a taste of this future in the past several weeks — with test images sent back from Webb. And although they’re only tests, each one hints at the unprecedented power of the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.
But memento: the real show is yet to come.
1. James Webb Space Telescope alignment image of 2MASS J17554042+6551277
At the end of a procedure called “fine phasing”, the James Webb Space Telescope’s (JWST’s) primary mirror — which is comprised of 18 hexagonal segments — was moved into focus by directing the telescope at a singular star, 2MASS J17554042+6551277, with few others in its vicinity, on March 11, 2022. This was called the alignment image. However, by combining the 18 distinct images, the resolution accuracy was brought to an astounding 50 nanometers. And this is only a fraction of the wavelengths Webb will capture when it really starts.
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“While we have only seen a few test images from Webb so far, my favorite is probably the alignment image,” said Klaus Pontoppidan, a project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) located in Baltimore, Maryland, in an emailed statement to IE. “This single star shows that the telescope is nearly perfectly in focus, a ground-breaking engineering accomplishment.”
Most people only see the star in the middle — which is admittedly pretty. But the real beauty is the unconscionable abundance of ancient galaxies in the background. “[W]e also see a stunning field of distant galaxies; in this brief snapshot, Webb already reached across the Universe, providing a glimpse of the science to come,” added Pontoppidan, to IE.
And, it turns out, this kind of cosmic detail will happen naturally the longer Webb takes snapping an image. “In a very real sense, when Webb spends more than 20 minutes taking an image it will show this background of galaxies, rivaling or surpassing the famous Hubble Deep Field,” said Pontoppidan.
2. Webb’s image of an 18-star mosaic
Back in February of 2022, the JWST released an incredible smattering of 18 stars spread throughout a black background. But the image is a trick: All of the bright stars above are actually one, and it’s located in the constellation Ursa Major — also called HD 84406. It only appears to be many because Webb’s mirror segments had yet to complete alignment.
This ostensible cosmic chaos happened because the telescope’s unaligned mirror segments would reflect light back into the telescope’s instruments. “We have aligned and focused the telescope on a star, and the performance is beating specifications,” said Deputy Optical Telescope Element Manager for Webb, Ritva Keski-Kuha, in a NASA blog post.
“More than 20 years ago, the JWST team set out to build the most powerful telescope that anyone has ever put in space and they came up with an optical design to meet the science goals,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, in the same blog post.
3. James Webb Telescope’s image of the Large Magellanic Cloud
A more recent image of Webb’s came on May 9: an incredible view of the Large Magellanic Cloud — which is a satellite galaxy near the Milky Way, and captured by the coldest instrument aboard the telescope: the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). It zoomed in on a star field within the satellite galaxy, and tested the James Webb Space Telescope’s imaging capability.
The image was juxtaposed to another, older one from the Spitzer Space Telescope (now retired), and it served to emphasize the high-resolution power of Webb’s near- and mid-infrared potential. “Webb, with its significantly larger primary mirror and improved detectors, will allow us to see the infrared sky with improved clarity, enabling even more discoveries,” read a different blog post from NASA.
And all this is just the beginning. Sometime this summer, it’ll finally begin real science missions — with the possibility of providing us with the first “true” image of atmospheres on alien worlds beyond our solar system. Webb will also examine moving objects within our own solar system, providing highly advanced tracking and imaging system to scientists whose specialty hones in on objects closer to Earth. It’ll even help reveal the evolution of ancient and supermassive black holes (the list is long). One thing’s for certain: once Webb begins its science missions in earnest, updates and new images will increase in frequency. And with each release moving through the media world in waves, the world will enjoy a new kind of astronomy, accelerating to unprecedented speeds in discovery and scientific impact. And we’re alive to see it.