Alignment of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is now complete. After full review, the observatory has been confirmed to be capable of capturing crisp, well-focused images with each of its four powerful onboard science instruments. Upon completing the seventh and final stage of telescope alignment, the team held a set of key decision meetings and unanimously agreed that Webb is ready to move forward into its next and final series of preparations, known as science instrument commissioning. This process will take about two months before scientific operations begin in the summer.
The alignment of the telescope across all of Webb’s instruments can be seen in a series of images that captures the observatory’s full field of view.
“These remarkable test images from a successfully aligned telescope demonstrate what people across countries and continents can achieve when there is a bold scientific vision to explore the universe,” said Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
The optical performance of the telescope continues to be better than the engineering team’s most optimistic predictions. Webb’s mirrors are now directing fully focused light collected from space down into each instrument, and each instrument is successfully capturing images with the light being delivered to them. The image quality delivered to all instruments is “diffraction-limited,” meaning that the fineness of detail that can be seen is as good as physically possible given the size of the telescope. From this point forward the only changes to the mirrors will be very small, periodic adjustments to the primary mirror segments.
“With the completion of telescope alignment and half a lifetime’s worth of effort, my role on the James Webb Space Telescope mission has come to an end,” said Scott Acton, Webb wavefront sensing and controls scientist, Ball Aerospace. “These images have profoundly changed the way I see the universe. We are surrounded by a symphony of creation; there are galaxies everywhere! It is my hope that everyone in the world can see them.”
Now, the Webb team will turn its attention to science instrument commissioning. Each instrument is a highly sophisticated set of detectors equipped with unique lenses, masks, filters, and customized equipment that helps it perform the science it was designed to achieve. The specialized characteristics of these instruments will be configured and operated in various combinations during the instrument commissioning phase to fully confirm their readiness for science. With the formal conclusion of telescope alignment, key personnel involved with the commissioning of each instrument have arrived at the Mission Operations Center at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and some personnel involved with telescope alignment have concluded their duties.
Webb Telescope Completes Alignment Phase
Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center
Though telescope alignment is complete, some telescope calibration activities remain: As part of scientific instrument commissioning, the telescope will be commanded to point to different areas in the sky where the total amount of solar radiation hitting the observatory will vary to confirm thermal stability when changing targets. Furthermore, ongoing maintenance observations every two days will monitor the mirror alignment and, when needed, apply corrections to keep the mirrors in their aligned locations.
By Thaddeus Cesari, NASA Goddard