NASA's Thomas Zurbuchen delivered a key message about the James Webb Space Telescope on Wednesday: It's going to deliver on its promise to see the universe in unprecedented depth and detail. Webb is already sending back proof of its prowess with a new alignment evaluation image that shows a gleaming star against a background of galaxies.
It's been a long road, and the image marks a triumphant milestone. "More than 20 years ago, the Webb team set out to build the most powerful telescope that anyone has ever put in space and came up with an audacious optical design to meet demanding science goals," said Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Today we can say that design is going to deliver."
Webb is a complex beast. It uses 18 hexagonal mirror segments that had to be folded up for launch and then unfolded and aligned in space. We've been following the process and seeing increasingly sharper and more focusedleading up to this week's image release.
The star itself is beautiful to look at, but a highlight of the new image is the background and the array of galaxies and stars that appear there. It's a testament to the telescope's sensitivity that it can see so much in just this test image.
March 11 marked the completion of an alignment stage called "fine phasing." "At this key stage in the commissioning of Webb's Optical Telescope Element, every optical parameter that has been checked and tested is performing at, or above, expectations," NASA said.
The Webb team will take the telescope through more alignment steps over the next six weeks. The observatory will then go through a two-month process of preparing its science instruments before it's ready to tackle its mission in earnest. If all continues to go well, we could see Webb's first full-resolution imagery this summer.