After years of delays, a nail-biting launch in late 2021, aand a complex deployment process, the has delivered a historic triumph: images of its first star.
The next-generation telescope — a joint project from NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency — is on a mission to peer into the earliest days of the universe. Before it can tackle that grand goal, it needs to make sure all systems are go. In an update on Friday, NASA announced Webb 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.”
Webb’s primary mirror is made up of 18 gold-plated hexagonal segments that will need to work together. The Webb team had a task: make sure NIRCam could collect light and then spot starlight from the same star source in each of those mirror segments. It worked.
The telescope’s first star appears 18 times in a mosaic released by NASA. It might look a little messy, but it’s an indication that Webb is operating as it should. The star looks randomly scattered across the mosaic because the mirrors aren’t aligned yet. “Over the next month or so, the team will gradually adjust the mirror segments until the 18 images become a single star,” NASA said.
Besides Webb’s first star, NASA also shared a primary mirror selfie taken by a special lens inside the NIRCam instrument. It’s a wonderful bonus image and a rare peek at a mission that wasn’t specifically equipped with a selfie camera.
“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 Webb project scientist Michael McElwain.
This is a celebratory moment in Webb’s early days out in space, but it’s just the start of a longer process. Webb’s instruments are still chilling out into their prime operating temperatures and the mirrors will go through an extended adjustment period. The best news of all is this message from Webb: So far, so good.