NASA's $10 billion telescope just took its first picture

"The entire Webb team is ecstatic"
Grant Currin
One bright star as reflected by each segment of telescope's primary mirror. NASA

The James Webb Space Telescope has taken its first photo — and it’s beautiful.

The image, released earlier today by NASA, is a composite that shows light from one star as it was reflected by each of the gold-plated segments of the telescope’s primary mirror.

Over the next month, engineers will make a series of minuscule adjustments to bring all 18 of the hexagonal segments into alignment.

Michael McElwain, Webb observatory project scientist, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, says this image represents a critical milestone for a project that has been underway for decades.

“Launching Webb to space was of course an exciting event, but for scientists and optical engineers, this is a pinnacle moment,” he says.

The image will help engineers align the mirror segments 

The subject of the photo, HD 84406, is a bright star in the Ursa Major constellation. In the night sky, it appears just to the right of the Big Dipper. Engineers chose the star because there are no nearby stars that would contaminate the image.

Webb started taking the image on February 2nd, according to NASA. Over the course of 25 hours, the telescope aimed at 156 positions within a patch of space about the size of the full moon as it appears from Earth, according to Marshall Perrin, deputy telescope scientist for Webb and astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

The Near Infrared Camera’s 10 detectors took a total of 1,560 images, which were stitched together into a mosaic of roughly 2 billion pixels.

“Taking so much data right on the first day required all of Webb’s science operations and data processing systems here on Earth working smoothly with the observatory in space right from the start,” he says.

Each segment of the primary mirror is currently operating like its own telescope, according to Webb Optical Telescope Manager Lee Feinberg.

“We’ve identified all 18 spots, and the next step is to make an array of them,” to determine how each of the mirrors needs to be adjudged so they are in alignment, Feinberg says.

NASA's $10 billion telescope just took its first picture
Friday's image with each version of the star showing which view of the star was reflected by which segment of the primary mirror.

Eventually, the mirrors will be focused and tilted so they work together as a single mirror.

If everything continues going according to plan, the telescope will start taking research-quality images by the summer.

"This amazing telescope has not only spread its wings, but it has now opened its eyes,” Feinberg says.

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