The James Webb Space Telescope has seen its first star (though not quite tonight) – and even taken a selfie, NASA announced on Friday.
The steps are part of a months-long process of aligning the observatory’s massive golden mirror, which astronomers hope will allow them to begin unraveling the mysteries of the early Universe this summer.
The first image returned from the cosmos is far from spectacular: There are 18 blurry white dots on a black background, all of which show the same object: HD 84406 is a bright, isolated star in the Ursa Major constellation.
However, it is a significant milestone. The 18 dots were captured by the 18 individual segments of the primary mirror – and the image (shown below) is now the basis for aligning and focusing those hexagonal pieces.
The light bounced off the segments to Webb’s secondary mirror, a round object at the end of long booms, and then to Webb’s main imaging device, the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam).
“The entire Webb team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope are proceeding,” said Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the NIRCam instrument and regents professor of astronomy, University of Arizona, in a statement.
“We were so happy to see that light make its way into NIRCam.”
On February 2, the image capture process began, with Webb pointing at various locations around the predicted location of the star.
Despite the fact that Webb’s initial search covered an area of sky roughly the size of the full Moon, the dots were all located near the center, indicating that the observatory is already relatively well-positioned for final alignment.
To aid the process, the team took a “selfie” (shown below) using a special lens on board NIRCam rather than an externally mounted camera.
NASA had previously said a selfie wasn’t possible, so the news comes as a welcome bonus for space fans.
“I think pretty much the reaction was holy cow,” Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager, told reporters in a call, explaining that the team wasn’t sure it was possible to obtain such an image using starlight alone.
The $10 billion observatory launched from French Guiana on December 25 and is now in an orbit aligned with the Earth’s around the Sun, 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from our planet in a region of space known as the second Lagrange point.
Webb will begin its science mission in the summer, using high-resolution instruments to peer back 13.5 billion years to the first generation of galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
The visible and ultraviolet light emitted by the first luminous objects has been stretched by the expansion of the Universe, arriving today in the form of infrared, which Webb is equipped to detect with unprecedented clarity.
Its mission also includes determining the origin, evolution, and habitability of distant planets known as exoplanets.
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