NASA's James Webb is one step closer to making its first scientific observation

James Webb's optical performance is better than the "most optimistic predictions."
Chris Young
An artist's impression of James Webb.NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is on the verge of making its first scientific observation.

The alignment of James Webb is now complete after a full review, leading NASA engineers to unanimously green light the next phase of preparations.

The last step in the review process confirmed that the space observatory is "capable of capturing crisp, well-focused images with each of its four powerful onboard science instruments," NASA explained in a blog update.

James Webb's optical performance is near perfect

Shortly after the review process, the James Webb team held a meeting where they agreed unanimously that Webb is ready to move on to the final series of preparations, known as science instrument commissioning.

That process will take approximately two months, after which James Webb will finally commence science operations in the summer, more than half a year after the $10 billion telescope launched from French Guiana, South America in December last year.

NASA's James Webb is one step closer to making its first scientific observation
Images from James Webb's image sharpness test. Source: NASA/STScl

Alongside the announcement of the successful alignment of James Webb, NASA showed off a series of images taken by the telescope's instruments, displaying its 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.

In its post, NASA said James Webb's optical performance "continues to be better than the engineering team's most optimistic predictions." The space observatory's mirrors are now successfully directing fully focused light from space into each of its instruments. NASA explained that the image quality picked up by the instruments is "diffraction-limited", meaning it is as good as physically possible.

"We are surrounded by a symphony of creation"

With the end of Webb's alignment, some personnel responsible for the operation have concluded their duties, after years working on the project. One of the team members, Webb wavefront sensing and controls scientist Scott Acton said, "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."

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"These images have profoundly changed the way I see the universe," he continued. "We are surrounded by a symphony of creation; there are galaxies everywhere! It is my hope that everyone in the world can see them."

We may be a mere two months from seeing James Webb commence scientific operations. When it does, it will provide an incredibly detailed view of the cosmos, and it could eventually provide evidence of extraterrestrial life and new insight into the elusive force of dark matter, among many other key observations. The wait is so nearly over.

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