Webb’s NIRSpec Acquires Multiple Targets

The Webb team has now approved 10 out of 17 science instrument modes; since last week we added (14) MIRI imaging, (2) NIRCam wide-field slitless spectroscopy, and our final NIRISS mode, (10) single-object slitless spectroscopy. As we ramp down the final commissioning activities, some openings in the schedule have appeared. The team has started to take some of the first science data, getting it ready to release starting July 12, 2022, which will mark the official end of commissioning Webb and the start of routine science operations.

This week we asked Tracy Beck, Tony Keyes, and Charles Proffitt, all NIRSpec instrument scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), to tell us about how Webb gets the targets lined up for observation with the NIRSpec instrument.

“The Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) is the instrument on the Webb telescope that observes spectra of astrophysical and planetary objects at near infrared wavelengths. The NIRSpec Grating Wheel Assembly (GWA) uses diffraction gratings or a prism to separate the wavelengths of incoming light into a spectrum. Study of the intensity or brightness of light across the wavelengths can provide key diagnostic information about the nature of various objects across the universe – from extrasolar planets around distant stars, to faint galaxies at the edge of the universe, and objects in our own solar system. NIRSpec will observe them all.

“In addition to the gratings and a prism, the NIRSpec GWA also has a mirror that is primarily used to ‘acquire’ targets – to image them and place them at the proper locations in the instrument to observe a spectrum.  NIRSpec has two methods for target acquisition (TA): the Wide Aperture Target Acquisition (WATA) and the Micro-Shutter Assembly (MSA) -based Target Acquisition (MSATA).

“The WATA process takes an image of a single astrophysical target through the wide ‘S1600A1’ fixed slit to determine its position on the sky as seen through the instrument. The software on-board the Webb telescope autonomously calculates an offset to move the telescope and accurately position either this target or another nearby target at the optimal location in NIRSpec to spread the light into a spectrum. During instrument commissioning, the excellent performance of WATA has been demonstrated on the sky for all four of the NIRSpec observing modes: integral field unit imaging spectroscopy, fixed slit spectroscopy, bright object time series, and multi-object spectroscopy.

“NIRSpec includes the multi-object spectroscopy (MOS) mode, where spectra of dozens to hundreds of science targets will be observed at one time. This requires specialized apertures that can be configured by opening and closing specific tiny doorways (microshutters) of the 250,000 total that are arranged in a rectangular grid in the MSA, allowing individual targets to be observed with little contamination from nearby objects or background light.

A simulation of the NIRSpec MSA-based Target acquisition, showing reference stars
A simulation of the NIRSpec MSA-based Target acquisition process, demonstrated on the NIRSpec Sharpness Check Image. NIRSpec uses “Reference Stars” observed through the fixed slits in the central area and the MSA to carefully correct the small x – y and position angle (rotation) offsets of the observatory so that the science targets will be aligned properly with their shutters across the entire NIRSpec MOS field of view. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the NIRSpec Team

“During MSATA, a set of target acquisition reference stars are imaged through open microshutters. The stellar positions are calculated autonomously by Webb’s on-board software and used to correct the initial spacecraft pointing and position angle (rotation). To allow accurate correction of the observed spectra for the centering of each source in its shutter, this process must place the MOS science targets across the full span of the NIRSpec field of view with an accuracy of 1/10th of a NIRSpec shutter width – or just 20 milli-arcseconds on the sky (the approximate size of a bumblebee, 1.5 cm, viewed from 150 km away!).

An optimized high-resolution simulation of a star at wavelength 2 microns seen through a NIRSpec microshutter (100×200 microns in size).
An optimized high-resolution simulation of a star at wavelength 2 microns seen through a NIRSpec microshutter (100×200 microns in size). For proper intensity estimation of NIRSpec science spectra, we need to accurately know the positioning of the targets to within 1/10th of the shutter width. Credit: NASA, ESA, and the NIRSpec Team

“The recent confirmation of NIRSpec target acquisition and additional work on the four science modes primes the NIRSpec team for our last activities of commissioning. We cannot wait to see the first NIRSpec science observations coming this summer!

“NIRSpec was built for the European Space Agency (ESA) by a consortium of European companies led by Airbus Defence and Space (ADS) with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center providing its detector and microshutter subsystems.”

–Tracy Beck, AURA Observatory and Webb NIRSpec Instrument Scientist, STScI; Tony Keyes AURA Scientist and Webb NIRSpec Instrument Scientist, STScI; and Charles Proffitt, AURA Observatory and Webb NIRSpec Instrument Scientist, STScI


Jonathan Gardner, Webb deputy senior project scientist, NASA Goddard
Stefanie Milam, Webb deputy project scientist for planetary science, NASA Goddard

Webb’s Quest for Primeval Black Holes

The Webb team continues to work on commissioning the science instruments, the final step before starting science operations in the summer. We recently saw the beautiful image of the black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy, taken by the Event Horizon Telescope. One of the puzzles of modern astronomy is how every large galaxy came to have a giant central black hole, and how some of these black holes are surprisingly large even at very early times. We asked Roberto Maiolino, a member of the Near-Infrared Spectrometer (NIRSpec) instrument science team, to tell us how Webb will help to answer some of these questions.

“One of the most exciting areas of discovery that Webb is about to open is the search for primeval black holes in the early universe. These are the seeds of the much more massive black holes that astronomers have found in galactic nuclei. Most (probably all) galaxies host black holes at their centers, with masses ranging from millions to billions of times the mass of our Sun. These supermassive black holes have grown to be so large both by gobbling matter around them and also through the merging of smaller black holes.

“An intriguing recent finding has been the discovery of hyper-massive black holes, with masses of several billion solar masses, already in place when the universe was only about 700 million years old, a small fraction of its current age of 13.8 billion years. This is a puzzling result, as at such early epochs there is not enough time to grow such hyper-massive black holes, according to standard theories. Some scenarios have been proposed to solve this conundrum. One possibility is that black holes, resulting from the death of the very first generation of stars in the early universe, have accreted material at exceptionally high rates. Another scenario is that primeval, pristine gas clouds, not yet enriched by chemical elements heavier than helium, could directly collapse to form a black hole with a mass of a few hundred thousand solar masses, and subsequently accrete matter to evolve into the hyper-massive black holes observed at later epochs. Finally, dense, nuclear star clusters at the centers of baby galaxies may have produced intermediate mass black hole seeds, via stellar collisions or merging of stellar-mass black holes, and then become much more massive via accretion.

A chart showing the populations of known black holes (as large black dots) and the candidate black hole progenitors in the early universe (as shaded regions).
This illustration shows the populations of known black holes (large black dots) and the candidate black hole progenitors in the early universe (shaded regions). Credit: Roberto Maiolino, University of Cambridge.

“Webb is about to open a completely new discovery space in this area. It is possible that the first black hole seeds originally formed in the ‘baby universe,’ within just a few million years after the big bang. Webb is the perfect ‘time machine’ to learn about these primeval objects. Its exceptional sensitivity makes Webb capable of detecting extremely distant galaxies, and because of the time required for the light emitted by the galaxies to travel to us, we will see them as they were in the remote past.

“Webb’s NIRSpec instrument is particularly well suited to identify primeval black hole seeds. My colleagues in the NIRSpec Instrument Science Team and I will be searching for their signatures during ‘active’ phases, when they are voraciously gobbling matter and growing rapidly. In these phases the material surrounding them becomes extremely hot and luminous and ionizes the atoms in their surroundings and in their host galaxies. NIRSpec will disperse the light from these systems into spectra, or ‘rainbows.’ The rainbow of active black hole seeds will be characterised by specific ‘fingerprints,’ features of highly ionized atoms. NIRSpec will also measure the velocity of the gas orbiting in the vicinity of these primeval black holes. Smaller black holes will be characterized by lower orbital velocities. Black hole seeds formed in pristine clouds will be identified by the absence of features associated with any element heavier than helium.

“I look forward to using Webb’s unprecedented capabilities to search for these black hole progenitors, with the ultimate goal of understanding their nature and origin. The early universe and the realm of black holes seeds is a completely uncharted territory that my colleagues and I are very excited to explore with Webb.”

— Roberto Maiolino, professor of experimental astrophysics and director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge


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

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

MIRI’s Sharper View Hints at New Possibilities for Science

Here, a close-up of the MIRI image is compared to a past image of the same target taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (at 8.0 microns). The MIRI version on the right shows stars and interstellar gas in sharp detail.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (left), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (right)

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is aligned across all four of its science instruments, as seen in a previous engineering image showing the observatory’s full field of view. Now, we take a closer look at that same image, focusing on Webb’s coldest instrument: the Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI.

The MIRI test image (at 7.7 microns) shows part of the Large Magellanic Cloud. This small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way provided a dense star field to test Webb’s performance.

Here, a close-up of the MIRI image is compared to a past image of the same target taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (at 8.0 microns). The retired Spitzer telescope was one of NASA’s Great Observatories and the first to provide high-resolution images of the near- and mid-infrared universe. Webb, with its significantly larger primary mirror and improved detectors, will allow us to see the infrared sky with improved clarity, enabling even more discoveries.

Here, a close-up of the MIRI image is compared to a past image of the same target taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (at 8.0 microns). The MIRI version on the right shows stars and interstellar gas in sharp detail.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech (top), NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI (bottom)

For example, Webb’s MIRI image shows the interstellar gas in unprecedented detail. Here, you can see the emission from “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” or molecules of carbon and hydrogen that play an important role in the thermal balance and chemistry of interstellar gas. When Webb is ready to begin science observations, studies such as these with MIRI will help give astronomers new insights into the birth of stars and protoplanetary systems.

 

Here, a close-up of the MIRI image is compared to a past image of the same target taken with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (at 8.0 microns). The MIRI image shows stars and interstellar gas in sharp detail.
Credit: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI

In the meantime, the Webb team has begun the process of setting up and testing Webb’s instruments to begin science observations this summer. Today at 11 a.m., Webb experts will preview these next two months of instrument preparations in a teleconference for media. Listen to the audio stream live at nasa.gov/live.

NASA’s Gregory Robinson Named Finalist for Service to America Medal

A headshot of Gregory L. Robinson
Credit: NASA

On May 1, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service announced the 2022 finalists for the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal (Sammies) – an  awards program honoring excellence and innovation in federal service. Among the finalists is Gregory L. Robinson, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters.

Selected from more than 400 nominations, Robinson has been named a Management Excellence finalist for his achievements in overseeing NASA’s largest and most complex international space science program, which will enable scientific breakthroughs in nearly every branch of astronomy.

“Greg Robinson is a leader who epitomizes excellence,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “Across a massive international program of diverse teams and perspectives, he built the trust, consensus, and motivation to see this revolutionary mission to launch.”

Webb launched on Dec. 25, 2021, and endured a harrowing multi-week spacecraft commissioning period where hundreds of intricate parts synchronized to work successfully in the harsh environment of space while on its journey to its final orbit one million miles from Earth.

“I am very honored to be considered for a Service to America Medal,” Robinson said. “Working with an incredible, resilient team and partners across the globe to overcome many challenges has been a great privilege. I have enjoyed a great career at NASA for over 30 years, and to be a part of the mission’s historic moment when Webb launched flawlessly on Christmas Day was an awe-inspiring gift.”

Since its inception in 2002, the Sammies have honored more than 650 outstanding federal employees. Robinson is among 30 federal employees across 22 federal agencies honored as 2022 Sammies finalists for their outstanding contributions to safety, public health, and sustainability across our nation and the world.

Prior to leading Webb, Robinson served as the deputy associate administrator for programs in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. He is a veteran executive, who previously served as deputy center director at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, NASA deputy chief engineer, and as the acting National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service deputy assistant administrator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Gregory L. Robinson holds a microphone and for an interview on NASA TV
Greg Robinson, program director for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Program at NASA Headquarters, gives a brief interview on NASA Television as he and the launch team monitor the countdown to Webb’s launch Dec. 25, 2021, at Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Webb is a large infrared telescope with a 21.3-foot (6.5-meter) primary mirror. The observatory will study every phase of cosmic history—from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Webb is the first space science telescope to use a large primary mirror that consists of 18 segments and an unparalleled optical system that recently showed the world its first focused image of a single star. Recently, the Webb team successfully aligned the telescope, confirming it can capture focused images with its four onboard science instruments. Now, it is undergoing the process of commissioning the instruments so it can deliver spectacular images and spectra this summer.

The observatory will enable the study of every phase of 13.5 billion years of cosmic history – from within our solar system to the most distant observable galaxies in the early universe – to everything in between.

More About the Sammies

More information about the program and the 2022 finalists is available online. All finalists are eligible for the Service to America Medals People’s Choice Award. Beginning Monday, May 2, members of the public may vote online for the federal employee they believe has made the most significant contribution to the American people. The People’s Choice winner will be announced in the summer.

More About the Webb Mission

The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most complex science observatory ever built, is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. As the scientific successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will explore the secrets of the universe and reveal new discoveries to help us understand our  place in the cosmos.

For more information about NASA’s Webb mission, visit https://www.nasa.gov/webb.

By Natasha R. Pinol, James Webb Space Telescope program communications lead at NASA Headquarters, Washington

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

Webb Mirror Alignment Continues Successfully

Webb continues on its path to becoming a focused observatory. The team has successfully worked through the second and third out of seven total phases of mirror alignment. With the completion of these phases, called Segment Alignment and Image Stacking, the team will now begin making smaller adjustments to the positions of Webb’s mirrors.

This hexagonal image array captured by the NIRCam instrument shows the progress made during the Segment Alignment phase, further aligning Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments and secondary mirror using precise movements commanded from the ground. Credit: NASA/STScI

After moving what were 18 scattered dots of starlight into Webb’s signature hexagonal formation, the team refined each mirror segment’s image by making minor adjustments, while also changing the alignment of Webb’s secondary mirror. The completion of this process, known as Segment Alignment, was a key step prior to overlapping the light from all the mirrors so that they can work in unison.

This gif shows the “before” and “after” images from Segment Alignment, when the team corrected large positioning errors of its primary mirror segments and updated the alignment of the secondary mirror. Credit: NASA/STScI

Once Segment Alignment was achieved, the focused dots reflected by each mirror were then stacked on top of each other, delivering photons of light from each segment to the same location on NIRCam’s sensor. During this process, called Image Stacking, the team activated sets of six mirrors at a time and commanded them to repoint their light to overlap, until all dots of starlight overlapped with each other.

During this phase of alignment known as Image Stacking, individual segment images are moved so they fall precisely at the center of the field to produce one unified image instead of 18. In this image, all 18 segments are on top of each other. After future alignment steps, the image will be even sharper. Credit: NASA/STScI

“We still have work to do, but we are increasingly pleased with the results we’re seeing,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager for Webb at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “Years of planning and testing are paying dividends, and the team could not be more excited to see what the next few weeks and months bring.”

Although Image Stacking put all the light from a star in one place on NIRCam’s detector, the mirror segments are still acting as 18 small telescopes rather than one big one. The segments now need to be lined up to each other with an accuracy smaller than the wavelength of the light.

The team is now starting the fourth phase of mirror alignment, known as Coarse Phasing, where NIRCam is used to capture light spectra from 20 separate pairings of mirror segments. This helps the team identify and correct vertical displacement between the mirror segments, or small differences in their heights. This will make the single dot of starlight progressively sharper and more focused in the coming weeks.

To Find the First Galaxies, Webb Pays Attention to Detail and Theory

This week, as the Webb team continues to make progress in aligning the telescope, other successful activities include the calibration of the NIRISS filter wheel and pupil wheel tuning for NIRCam. There are hundreds of activities like these planned during the commissioning process, and each is as important as the next to ensure that Webb can achieve its ambitious science goals. One such goal – detecting the earliest galaxies – also requires a lot of planning and theory to prepare for the observations. L.Y. Aaron Yung, a postdoc at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, tells us more about the important theoretical work that helps plan for and then analyze galaxy surveys:

“This summer, Webb will start searching for galaxies in the distant universe. These highly anticipated observations are the key to unlocking the secrets in galaxy evolution and our universe’s history. Depending on the specific science goal of an observing program, the best-suited survey configurations can vary a lot.

“For instance, galaxy surveys going after the faintest and most distant galaxies require long exposure times (e.g., NGDEEP, PRIMER), but surveys for large-scale cosmological structure would require large survey areas (e.g., COSMOS-Web). Inputs from physically motivated simulations are essential to developing optimal observing strategies to achieve the specific scientific goals.

“To create a simulated universe, we first lay the foundation with dark matter concentrations, or halos, extracted from cosmological simulations. Dark matter accounts for 85% of the matter in the universe and has a dominant effect on the spatial distributions of galaxies across the universe. We then simulate the galaxies forming inside these dark matter halos based on astrophysical processes we learned from past observations.

“This figure illustrates an example of a portion of a simulated universe arranged in the shape of a cone traced by our sightlines. Because light travels at a finite speed, the light that originated in the early universe has travelled billions of years before finally reaching us today. This effectively allows us to look back in time and see the universe billions of years into its past.

Side-view of the simulated universe as presented in the “Semi-analytic forecasts for JWST” project (Yung et al., in preparation). Each data point represents a galaxy. Larger and darker data points represent galaxies with more mass, and vice versa. Credit: Yung et al.

“Our simulated universe serves as the basis to create mock observing fields that are statistically similar to the observed universe. The physically motivated models have been shown to match the galaxies observed by Hubble (e.g., the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field), and we use them to provide predictions for galaxies beyond Hubble’s capabilities.

View of the simulated universe from the front, just like the way we see the universe. The simulated field has perimeters similar to the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. We also show a comparison of the simulated field at depths reachable by Hubble (left) and Webb (right). Credit: Yung et al.

“We process the simulated universe further into realistic mock images by adding effects from scientific instruments and survey configurations. These data products are used to support the development of the Webb data reduction pipeline and will inform the interpretation of future observations when they become available.

Synthetic image of an ultra-deep galaxy survey, with a side-by-side comparison at depths expected to be reached by CEERS (left) and NGDEEP (right). Courtesy of Micaela Bagley

“Webb will detect, for the first time in human history, galaxy populations forming shortly after the big bang, and theory is paving the way for the search. In turn, Webb observations will refine our understanding of galaxies and the history of our universe.”

–Dr. L. Y. Aaron Yung, NASA postdoctoral program fellow, NASA Goddard

As Webb continues its commissioning activities on the way to normal operations, we will start to preview anticipated science on this blog in addition to providing updates on the latest observatory activities.


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

Webb Team Brings 18 Dots of Starlight Into Hexagonal Formation

This early Webb alignment image, with dots of starlight arranged in a pattern similar to the honeycomb shape of the primary mirror, is called an “image array.” Credit: NASA/STScI/J. DePasquale

The Webb team continues to make progress in aligning the observatory’s mirrors. Engineers have completed the first stage in this process, called “Segment Image Identification.” The resulting image shows that the team has moved each of Webb’s 18 primary mirror segments to bring 18 unfocused copies of a single star into a planned hexagonal formation.

This image mosaic (top), which shows 18 randomly positioned copies of the same star, served as the starting point for the alignment process. To complete the first stage of alignment, the team moved the primary mirror segments to arrange the dots of starlight into a hexagonal image array (bottom). Each dot of starlight is labeled with the corresponding mirror segment that captured it.
Credits: NASA (top); NASA/STScI/J. DePasquale (bottom)

With the image array complete, the team has now begun the second phase of alignment: “Segment Alignment.” During this stage, the team will correct large positioning errors of the mirror segments and update the alignment of the secondary mirror, making each individual dot of starlight more focused. When this “global alignment” is complete, the team will begin the third phase, called “Image Stacking,” which will bring the 18 spots of light on top of each other.

“We steer the segment dots into this array so that they have the same relative locations as the physical mirrors,” said Matthew Lallo, systems scientist and Telescopes Branch manager at the Space Telescope Science Institute. “During global alignment and Image Stacking, this familiar arrangement gives the wavefront team an intuitive and natural way of visualizing changes in the segment spots in the context of the entire primary mirror. We can now actually watch the primary mirror slowly form into its precise, intended shape!”