Webb Continues Multi-Instrument Alignment

While telescope alignment continues, Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is still in cooldown mode. MIRI, which will be the coldest of Webb’s four instruments, is the only instrument that will be actively cooled by a cryogenic refrigerator, or cryocooler. This cryocooler uses helium gas to carry heat from MIRI’s optics and detectors out to the warm side of the sunshield. To manage the cooldown process, MIRI also has heaters onboard, to protect its sensitive components from the risk of ice forming. The Webb team has begun progressively adjusting both the cryocooler and these heaters, to ensure a slow, controlled, stable cooldown for the instrument. Soon, the team will turn off MIRI’s heaters entirely, to bring the instrument down to its operating temperature of less than 7 kelvins (-447 degrees Fahrenheit, or -266 degrees Celsius).

In the meantime, after achieving alignment with the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), Webb engineers have begun aligning the telescope to the remaining near-infrared instruments. For more about this six-week process, we hear today from Michael McElwain and Charles Bowers, members of the Webb team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center:

“Webb’s alignment at the NIRCam field showed some spectacular diffraction-limited images, producing a tantalizing glimpse of the capabilities this observatory will carry for its science program. This was a major milestone because it required nearly all of the observatory systems to be functioning as designed. It all worked as well as we dared to hope, and it was certainly a moment to celebrate.

“The next step is to ensure the telescope is well-aligned to the instruments other than NIRCam, including the guider (the Fine Guidance Sensor, or FGS) and the other three science instruments: the Near-Infrared Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS), Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec), and MIRI. All the near-infrared instruments have already been passively cooled, are approaching their operational temperatures, and are participating in this next alignment stage. MIRI requires active cooling by a cryocooler, which is now underway, and it will be ready for alignment in a few weeks.

“This is the sixth stage of our telescope alignment plan, the Telescope Alignment Over Instrument Fields of View. Each of the instruments occupies a part of the telescope focal plane, just slightly offset with respect to each other. NIRCam was intentionally placed at the center of the telescope field where the telescope’s optical performance is best due to its demanding imaging performance requirements. Additionally, NIRCam was equipped with some specialized optical tools used to align the telescope. However, the initial alignment using only NIRCam could lead to an incorrect placement that compensates errors from primary-to-secondary mirror misalignments with the primary mirror itself. Small misalignments of this type will be evident in images in instruments farther from the center of the telescope field of view.

“The first step was to simply look at star fields as seen by NIRCam, NIRISS, FGS, and NIRSpec to see whether they were in focus. The stars looked nearly in-focus, which was a sign that the primary to secondary mirror alignment was already very good. A more accurate optical error measurement has been carried out at five to 10 field positions within each operational science instrument, using data taken with the secondary mirror positioned out of focus. This dataset provided a conclusive determination of the telescope alignment state.

“The Webb optics team analyzed the multi-instrument dataset and determined that only minor focus adjustments are needed on the secondary mirror and science instruments. Since the telescope is still cooling along with the MIRI instrument, we will not apply the corrections at this time and will defer them until the next round.

“When MIRI is available, an additional round of measurements will be conducted by each science instrument to determine the final state of the telescope alignment. We will iterate this process as needed to ensure the telescope performance is optimized for all of the instruments. After the telescope alignment to all instruments is complete, we will transition to the final two months of commissioning, where we will carry out optical stability tests and measure the science instrument performance before embarking on the Cycle 1 science program.”

Michael McElwain, Webb observatory project scientist, NASA Goddard

Charles Bowers, Webb deputy observatory project scientist, NASA Goddard


Webb Begins Multi-Instrument Alignment

After meeting the major milestone of aligning the telescope to NIRCam, the Webb team is starting to extend the telescope alignment to the guider (the Fine Guidance Sensor, or FGS) and the other three science instruments. This six-week-long process is called multi-instrument multi-field (MIMF) alignment.

When a ground-based telescope switches between cameras, sometimes the instrument is physically taken off the telescope, and a new one is installed during the daytime when the telescope is not in use. If the other instrument is already on the telescope, mechanisms are in place to move part of the telescope’s optics (known as a pick-off mirror) into the field of view.

On space telescopes like Webb, all the cameras see the sky at the same time; to switch a target from one camera to another, we repoint the telescope to put the target into the field of view of the other instrument.

After MIMF, Webb’s telescope will provide a good focus and sharp images in all the instruments. In addition, we need to precisely know the relative positions of all the fields of view. Over last weekend, we mapped the positions of the three near-infrared instruments relative to the guider and updated their positions in the software that we use to point the telescope. In another instrument milestone, FGS recently achieved “fine guide” mode for the first time, locking onto a guide star using its highest precision level. We have also been taking “dark” images, to measure the baseline detector response when no light reaches them – an important part of the instrument calibration.

Webb’s guider (FGS) and four science instruments (NIRCam, NIRSpec, NIRISS, and MIRI) share the field of view of the Webb telescope optics, but they actually see different parts of the sky at any given observation. Credit: NASA

Webb’s mid-infrared instrument, MIRI, will be the last instrument that is aligned, as it is still waiting for the cryogenic cooler to chill it to its final operating temperature, just under 7 degrees above absolute zero. Interspersed within the initial MIMF observations, the two stages of the cooler will be turned on to bring MIRI to its operating temperature. The final stages of MIMF will align the telescope for MIRI.

You might be wondering: If all of the instruments can see the sky at the same time, can we use them simultaneously? The answer is yes! With parallel science exposures, when we point one instrument at a target, we can read out another instrument at the same time. The parallel observations don’t see the same point in the sky, so they provide what is essentially a random sample of the universe. With a lot of parallel data, scientists can determine the statistical properties of the galaxies that are detected. In addition, for programs that want to map a large area, much of the parallel images will overlap, increasing the efficiency of the valuable Webb dataset.

By Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

And Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA Goddard

Webb Will Use Spectroscopy to Study Composition of Distant Galaxies

This week the Webb team continued to make progress in aligning the telescope to the NIRCam instrument. Between taking the data to understand the optical components, we continue to check out the science instruments. The NIRSpec instrument includes a microshutter array of a quarter-million miniature movable windows, each 0.1 by 0.2 millimeters in size. The microshutter array allows scientists to target specific galaxies in fields they are studying, while closing the windows on the background or other objects which would contaminate the spectra. We have begun testing the mechanism and electronics that control and actuate the microshutters.

In recent weeks, we shared a technique for theoretically modeling the early universe. Today, we will discuss an observational program to help us answer some of those questions. Massimo Stiavelli, the Webb Mission Office head at the Space Telescope Science Institute, tells us about his planned investigations of the first stars and galaxies:

“The chemical composition of the early universe, just after the big bang, is the product of the nuclear processes that took place in the first few minutes of the universe’s existence. These processes are known as ‘primordial nucleosynthesis.’ One of the predictions of this model is that the chemical composition of the early universe is largely hydrogen and helium. There were only traces of heavier elements, which formed later in stars. These predictions are compatible with observations, and are in fact one of the key pieces of evidence that support the hot big bang model.

“The earliest stars formed out of material with this primordial composition. Finding these stars, commonly dubbed as the ‘First Stars’ or ‘Population III stars,’ is an important verification of our cosmological model, and it is within reach of the James Webb Space Telescope. Webb might not be able to detect individual stars from the beginning of the universe, but it can detect some of the first galaxies containing these stars.

“One way to confirm whether we are finding the first stars is to accurately measure metallicities of very distant galaxies. The astronomical term, metallicity, is a measurement of the amount of material heavier than hydrogen and helium – so a low metallicity galaxy would indicate it was made up of these ‘First Stars.’ One of the most distant galaxies discovered so far, known as MACS1149-JD1, is confirmed to be at redshift 9.1 and emitted the light we see when the universe was only 600 million years old. The light from this distant galaxy has been traveling ever since then and is just reaching us now.

“In the first year of Webb science, I have an observing program to study this galaxy and determine its metallicity. I will do this by attempting to measure the ratio in the strength of two spectroscopic lines emitted by oxygen ions, originally emitted at violet-blue and blue-green visible light (rest frame wavelengths at 4,363 angstroms and 5,007 angstroms). Thanks to cosmological redshift, these lines are now detectable at the infrared wavelengths that Webb can see. The use of a ratio of two lines of the same ion can provide an exquisite measurement of the gas temperature in this galaxy and, through relatively simple theoretical modeling, will provide a robust measurement of its metallicity.

“The challenge is that one of these lines is usually extremely weak. However, this line tends to get stronger at lower metallicity. So if we failed to detect the line and measure metallicity for MACS1149-JD1, that would likely mean that it has already been enriched by the heavier elements, and we need to look further and harder. Whether using my data or with future programs, I fully expect that during its operational lifetime Webb will be able to find objects with metallicity sufficiently low to hold keys for understanding the first generation of stars.”

Massimo Stiavelli, Webb Mission Office head, Space Telescope Science Institute

By Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

And Alexandra Lockwood, project scientist for Webb science communications, Space Telescope Science Institute

Checking Out the Mechanisms in Webb’s NIRSpec Instrument

This week, the Webb team has been working on the fourth stage of mirror alignment, called Coarse Phasing, which measures and corrects smaller height differences between the mirror segments.

In the meantime this past week, Webb’s Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) team successfully finished the check-out and initial characterization of three crucial onboard mechanisms. Today, members of the team join us to share more about the inner workings of this instrument, which was contributed by ESA (European Space Agency):

“To work properly as a spectrograph, NIRSpec has three mechanisms: a Filter Wheel Assembly (FWA), a Grating Wheel Assembly (GWA), and a Refocus Mechanism Assembly (RMA). The gratings in the GWA spread the incoming light over its colors or wavelengths to make a spectrum. The filters in the FWA block the wavelengths that are outside the range of interest to prevent contamination between different optical paths, or ‘orders.’ The RMA adjusts the instrument focus.

This NIRSpec diagram shows the placement of the Filter Wheel Assembly (FWA), a Grating Wheel Assembly (GWA), and a Refocus Mechanism Assembly (RMA). Credit: STScI

“We operated the Filter Wheel Assembly first, cycling it through all eight of its positions in both forward and reverse directions. Those eight filter wheel positions include five long-pass order-separation filters, two finite-band target acquisition filters, and an ‘opaque’ position that serves as the instrument shutter. At each position, we recorded a set of reference data. This data showed us how well the wheel was moving and how accurately it settled into each position. Between each FWA position, we downloaded ‘high-capacity buffer’ data from the positioning sensors, and the NIRSpec team analyzed the data. The data showed that the wheel moved very well even in the first attempt.

“We then used a very similar procedure for the Grating Wheel Assembly, which also performed excellently the first time. The GWA is shaped like a miniature Ferris wheel and holds eight optical elements, consisting of six diffraction gratings, one prism, and a mirror. These dispersers separate the incoming light by wavelength, generating spectra that are detected by NIRSpec’s sensor chips.

“The Refocus Mechanism Assembly includes a linear translation stage that holds two flat mirrors. It will be used to fine-tune the instrument focus, compensating for any change in the overall focus position of the Webb telescope that may occur throughout the observatory’s lifetime. After various initial retrievals of the RMA telemetry acquisition chain, the mechanism was moved forward a few hundred steps from launch position. Just like with the FWA and GWA, we used high-capacity buffer readouts to collect reference datasets. After the initial move, we commanded the RMA mirrors to their previous best focus position; successful completions of this test showed us that the RMA is a well-behaved and healthy mechanism.

The NIRSpec thermal team from Airbus Germany of Taufkirchen and Immenstaad – Marc Maschmann (left), Martin Altenburg (right), and Ralf Ehrenwinkler (front) – at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Credit: STScI

“In the coming months, the NIRSpec team will continue their commissioning efforts. The whole team is very much looking forward to the start of science observations this summer!”

–Maurice Te Plate, Webb NIRSpec systems engineer, European Space Agency; Tim Rawle, Webb NIRSpec instrument scientist, European Space Agency; and Ralf Ehrenwinkler, project manager, NIRSpec post-delivery support, Airbus Defence and Space

By Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

And Alexandra Lockwood, project scientist for Webb science communications, Space Telescope Science Institute