NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has captured its first ‘in focus’ shot of a single star, and it is so good that the observatory may be able to exceed its research goals.
When the telescope begins science operations in the coming months, this will enable considerably more precise views of stars, planets, and galaxies.
Webb was launched on Christmas Day last year from the European launch facility in French Guiana and arrived in its final orbit between Earth and the sun on January 24. It has now conducted a series of essential mirror alignment processes known as ‘fine phasing,’ revealing a picture of the star 2MASS J17554042+6551277 in focus. NASA says the picture is so satisfactory that the optical effectiveness from Webb ‘will be able to meet or exceed the science goals the observatory was built to achieve.’
‘More than 20 years ago, the Webb team set out to build the most powerful telescope that anyone has ever put in space and came up with an audacious optical design to meet demanding science goals,’ said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator. ‘Today we can say that design is going to deliver.’
This, along with the two previous mosaic photos, are ‘engineering photographs,’ with the first ‘beautiful picture’ slated to be unveiled early this summer. After aligning each of the 18 mirror segments to within a fraction of the diameter of a human hair, the tennis court-sized $10 billion observatory is now completely focused.
The focusing team’s job is not over; this is only the next key milestone in the unfolding, preparation, focusing, and cooling of the telescope. This step entailed inspecting and testing all optical parameters to ensure they were functioning at or above expectations.
The scientists also discovered no major flaws, as well as no quantifiable contaminants or obstructions in Webb’s optical path. The observatory successfully gathers light from faraway objects and delivers it to its equipment.