Space

NASA James Webb Space Telescope Hits Major Milestone, Sends Back Crisp Galaxy Images

All of the telescope's instruments are aligned and in excellent shape, bringing us closer to unveiling the unfiltered universe.

These are test images taken of a section of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a nearby satellite galaxy in the Milky Way, by all of Webb's major instruments.
NASA/STScI

NASA sent ripples through the world of astronomy about four months ago as the James Webb Space Telescope lifted off into the cosmos. There was applause and champagne. But then the agency went right back to work because, in a sense, the most perilous parts of Webb's journey were yet to come. 

While floating in space, Webb needed to extend its antenna, make communication with ground control, align its 18 hexagonal mirrors, calibrate its ultra-high-resolution infrared imaging equipment and much more. 

The trailblazing telescope already has a lot of successes under its belt. But on Thursday, and after a comprehensive review, the team at NASA came to a unanimous conclusion that Webb's seventh and final stage of alignment can be marked complete. All mirrors are locked in place.

More specifically, Webb's now-aligned mirrors are directing totally focused light emanating from space onto each instrument, and each instrument is perfectly using this light to capture images. "From this point forward," NASA says, "the only changes to the mirrors will be very small, periodic adjustments to the primary mirror segments."

This one's a pretty big milestone. It means all four of the telescope's science instruments, which you can read about in detail here, are working and are able to capture the "crisp, well-focused images" that astronomers worldwide are eagerly awaiting. 

Not only that, but "the optical performance of the telescope continues to be better than the engineering team's most optimistic predictions," NASA says. Webb has come a long, long way since it's first, sort of grainy, black-and-white images we received in February.

webbselfie

Besides seeing its first star, Webb also snapped this charming "selfie" of its primary mirror in February.

NASA

"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," Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.

Take another quick glance -- or long gaze, if you like -- at NASA's collage. OK, now, here's what you're looking at in the black-and-red conglomerate of Webb's newest pics.

Webb's newly aligned instruments

First of all, these exquisite images are of the glittery stars within a section of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy in the Milky Way. Diving into the details, though, each instrument took a picture that matches its unique skillset.

The Near-Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, is Webb's holy grail infrared imager, which will lead the charge in detecting and imaging the formation of the universe's earliest stars and galaxies. 

The Near-Infrared Spectrograph, or NIRSpec, will use spectrography to learn about the chemical composition and temperature of galactic bodies. 

The Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI, has both a camera and spectrograph that will find objects in the mid-infrared electromagnetic region.

The Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, or NIRISS, is poised to find never-before-seen exoplanets lurking in the cosmos. 

webb-artist-concept

This artist's concept shows the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA

And finally, the fine guidance sensor is basically Webb's navigation system. Without this, the special scope wouldn't know which way it's facing or find important targets. It would be lost.

Together, the exceptional crew of machinery will give us our first glimpse into an unfiltered universe. 

This huge upgrade from Hubble promises to solve puzzles that range from decoding the secrets of black holes to capturing photos of the universe as it was when time began, thereby elucidating whether our astronomy textbooks need any annotations or amendments.

"These images have profoundly changed the way I see the universe," Scott Acton, Webb wavefront sensing and controls scientist at Ball Aerospace said in a statement. "We are surrounded by a symphony of creation; there are galaxies everywhere! It is my hope that everyone in the world can see them."

In about two months, as long as the next few steps of calibration continue blowing us out of the water, the agency says we can expect spectacular scientific discoveries to commence.

So far, though, Webb seems to be a straight A student.