NASA’s largest telescope sees first star and takes a selfie

Space

This March 5, 2020 photo made availalble by NASA shows the main mirror assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope during testing at a Northrop Grumman facility in Redondo Beach, Calif. (Chris Gunn/NASA via AP)

(NEXSTAR) – Do you remember seeing your first star? Or taking your first selfie? Maybe not, but NASA’s newest telescope will have images of these firsts.

The James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most powerful in the world, made its way to its new home last month. It is now 1 million miles away from Earth, much further than NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which was only 340 miles away.

The 7-ton telescope is floating in space right now. Webb will be used to peer through clouds of gas and dust to see things at a much greater distance — light that comes from when the first stars and galaxies were forming 13.7 billion years ago. The new tool will also scan the atmospheres of distant worlds for possible signs of life.

Last week, Webb spotted its first star – 18 times – and captured its first selfie.

Webb is nearly done with its first phase of the months-long process of aligning its primary mirror. To do this, it uses the Near Infrared Camera, or NIRCam, instrument. NASA explains that after they were sure NIRCam was ready to collect starlight from celestial objects, it had to identify starlight from the same star in each of the 18 mirror segments.

NASA focused on star HB 84406, which is located near Ursa Major, aka the Big Dipper. Because the primary mirror segments aren’t aligned, Webb created 18 separate images of the same star.

While it may look like just a blurry photo of some lights, NASA says the mosaic, below, is crucial for Webb to become aligned and focused. Once that is complete, expected sometime this summer, Webb will be able to provide “unprecedented views of the universe.”

The initial alignment mosaic of the James Webb Space Telescope, captured on Feb. 2, 2022. (NASA)

Creating the mosaic wasn’t a quick process, either. It started on Feb. 2, with Webb being repointed to 156 different positions, which lead to 1,560 images and 54 gigabytes of raw data. Overall, it took Webb nearly 25 hours to finish its task. The images were then stitched together to create a large mosaic with over 2 billion pixels. The photo above is just a center portion of the entire mosaic.

In addition to its out-of-this-world mosaic, Webb was also able to take a selfie. Using a specialized pupil imaging lens, the telescope captured the below image of itself.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s first “selfie.” This configuration is not used during scientific operations and is used strictly for engineering and alignment purposes. In this case, the bright segment was pointed at a bright star, while the others aren’t currently in the same alignment. This image gave an early indication of the primary mirror alignment to the instrument. (NASA)

Notice the one hexagon that’s white instead of gray? That segment is reflecting starlight, Lee Feinberg, Webb Optical Telescope Element Manager explains. Webb’s ability to take a selfie serves a bigger purpose than the telescope getting likes on Instagram – NASA relies on this feature for “engineering and alignment purposes.”

Webb will be able to take clearer, more detailed images in the coming months. Its three other instruments have not yet reached their cryogenic operating temperatures and aren’t collecting data. NASA expects Webb to produce its first scientific images this summer.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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