The James Webb Space Telescope has achieved what astronomers refer to as “first light” more than two months after its spectacular Christmas morning launch and many spine-tingling weeks of gyrations and unfoldings.
A star in the constellation Ursa Major known as HD 84406 was captured by the Near Infrared Camera on NASA’s Webb Space Telescope and viewed through each of the 18 segments that make up the telescope’s primary mirror. The images were released on Friday by the Near Infrared Camera, the Webb’s workhorse instrument (NIRCam). They will now spend the next several months moving each of those mirror parts back and forth, back and forth, until that star is formed from a cluster of stars.
An “ecstatic” response was expressed by the Webb team, according to NASA’s news release, which cited Marcia Rieke, who is a professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona and was part of the team that created NIRCam.
The Webb telescope is a collaborative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency that has been in the works for 25 years and cost $10 billion. A successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, the spacecraft is named for a former NASA administrator who directed the space agency through its formative years during the Apollo moon missions. In order to investigate the cosmos when it was just around 200 million years old and the first stars and galaxies were barely emerging from the murky remnants of the Big Bang, it was built to be as large as possible. Among other things, it will investigate the mysteries of black holes and search for hints of habitability or life on exoplanets orbiting neighbouring stars.
These goals are achieved via the use of devices that are sensitive to infrared or “heat” radiation. Because the light waves from such far objects have been stretched by the expansion of the universe, they can only be captured at electromagnetic wavelengths that are longer than those that are visible to human eyes or typical sensors.
After being parked approximately a million miles from Earth, the Webb is currently on an orbit that takes it around the sun, shielded from the sun by a silvery foil heat shield that keeps it cool enough for the telescope to sense the heat from distant planet and galaxy systems.
NIRCam’s mirror array was photographed as an added bonus as part of the “first light” celebrations. This is the first time anybody has seen the spacecraft since it departed the planet soon after it was launched.
After all of the tinkering and focusing has been completed, the first scientific findings from the telescope are anticipated this summer. The cosmos should brace itself for its close-up moment.