The James Webb Space Telescope has spotted its first star and captured a selfie, NASA announced on Friday. The steps are part of the months-long process of aligning the observatory’s massive golden mirror that astronomers hope will begin to unravel the mysteries of the early Universe this summer. The first image sent from the cosmos is far from impressive: 18 white dots blurred on a black background, all showing the same object: HD 84406 a bright, isolated star in the constellation Ursa Major.
However, it represents an important milestone. The 18 points were captured by the 18 individual segments of the primary mirror – and the image is now the basis for aligning and focusing these hexagonal pieces on the James Webb Space Telescope.
The light reflected in the segments to Webb’s secondary mirror, a round object located at the end of long lances, and then to the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) instrument — Webb’s primary imaging device.
“The entire Webb team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of imaging and aligning the telescope are proceeding,” said Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the NIRCam instrument and leading professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona, in a statement. .
“We were so happy to see that light enter NIRCam.”
The imaging process began on February 2, with Webb pointing to different positions around the star’s predicted location.
Although Webb’s initial search covered an area of the sky roughly equal to the size of the full moon, the points were all located near the central portion, meaning that the observatory is already relatively well positioned for the final alignment.
To help with the process, the team also captured a “selfie” taken not through an externally mounted camera, but through a special lens onboard the NIRCam.
NASA had previously said that a selfie was not possible, so the news is a welcome bonus for space fans.
“I think the reaction was pretty good,” Lee Feinberg, element manager for the Webb optical telescope, told reporters in a call, explaining that the team wasn’t sure it would be possible to get such an image using starlight alone.
The $10 billion (approximately Rs. 75,600 crore) observatory was launched from French Guiana on 25 December and is now in an Earth-aligned orbit around the Sun, 1.5 million kilometers from our planet, in a region of space called the second Lagrange point.
Webb will begin its science mission in the summer, which includes using its high-resolution instruments to go back 13.5 billion years to the first generation of galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
The visible and ultraviolet light emitted by the first luminous objects was stretched by the expansion of the Universe and arrives today in the form of infrared, which Webb is equipped to detect with unprecedented clarity.
Its mission also includes studying distant planets, known as exoplanets, to determine their origin, evolution and habitability.