Story at a glance
- NASA launched one of the world’s most powerful telescopes, the James Webb space telescope, to space last month.
- Engineers at NASA will now spend the next three months adjusting the telescope's intricate system of mirrors.
- The James Webb space telescope is expected to release its first images of the cosmos this summer.
One of the world’s most powerful telescopes successfully reached space and now scientists will be tasked with carefully maneuvering the engineering marvel to begin capturing the cosmos.
The James Webb space telescope was sent to space late last month, and last week NASA was able to fully deploy the telescope’s 21-foot, gold-coated primary mirror, successfully completing the final stage of all major spacecraft deployments.
“Today, NASA achieved another engineering milestone decades in the making. While the journey is not complete, I join the Webb team in breathing a little easier and imagining the future breakthroughs bound to inspire the world,” said Bill Nelson, NASA Administrator.
Though a major feat, work for NASA engineers is just beginning as the Webb telescope will require alignments that will take months to complete. That includes adjusting Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments to align the telescope optics and create one big mirror.
NASA’s ground team will handle adjusting the mirrors, an alignment process that’s expected to take about three months.
Lee Feinberg, the Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA, said the primary mirror segments that will form one large mirror means each segment, “is aligned to one-five-thousandth the thickness of a human hair,” according to the Guardian.
That's not the only part of Webb that will require alignment work, the telescope has a smaller, secondary mirror that was designed to direct light collected from the primary mirror into Webb’s camera. That must also be aligned so it operates in sync with the rest of Webb’s optical system.
NASA hopes all the preparations in getting Webb set up in space will get the telescope ready to capture its first images by May, which Feinberg said would require an additional month of processing before it could be released to the public, according to the Guardian.
Researchers around the world have been eagerly awaiting Webb’s deployment as the telescope initially began development in 1996. It’s viewed as the successor for NASA’s Hubble telescope, which initially launched into space in 1990.
Now the time has come for Webb to take on space observation duties, and scientists intend for it to become the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide.
Webb’s mission will be to search for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang and determine how galaxies evolved from their initial formation to the present day. The telescope is also expected to observe the formation of stars from their first stages to their eventual formation to planets.
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