Webb space telescope nears its destination almost a million miles from Earth, ready for critical mirror alignment

Webb space telescope nears its destination almost a million miles from Earth, ready for critical mirror alignment

James Webb Space Telescope, Nasa

1/24/2022 12:20:00 AM

Webb space telescope nears its destination almost a million miles from Earth, ready for critical mirror alignment

If all goes well, Webb will be 100 times more powerful than Hubble​ — so sensitive to infrared light that it could detect the faint heat of a bumble bee as far away as the moon.

"The big thing is getting the 18 primary mirror segments pointing in a similar way so that their images are about the same size," Feinberg said."Some of them might be very defocused and so you might get a big spot (blurred star image) on segment 5 and a small spot on segment 3."

The goal is to tilt the segments as required to minimize the size of the defocused images and then to move the multiple reflections to the same point at the center of the telescope's optical axis, all of them stacked on top of each other to produce a single beam of sharply focused light.

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YouTube "The big thing is getting the 18 primary mirror segments pointing in a similar way so that their images are about the same size," Feinberg said."Some of them might be very defocused and so you might get a big spot (blurred star image) on segment 5 and a small spot on segment 3." The goal is to tilt the segments as required to minimize the size of the defocused images and then to move the multiple reflections to the same point at the center of the telescope's optical axis, all of them stacked on top of each other to produce a single beam of sharply focused light. "At the very top level, think of it as 18 separate telescopes aligned to about the same level," Feinberg said."And then we will overlap 18 spots on top of each other. We call that image stacking. It is a process of tilting the primary mirror segments so that the images fall on top of each other." The key, he said, is"you really need very good control of those actuators, very precise tilts, because we need these 18 spots to overlap each other very well." Each of Webb's 18 primary mirror segments features a"hexapod" attached to the backside with six actuators allowing engineers to precisely position each one. A seventh actuator can adjust the curvature of a mirror segment if required. Ball Aerospace Any given segment can lose one of its six tilt actuators with no impact. Even the loss of a center actuator can be compensated for to some degree by moving the segment up or down slightly. But exhaustive testing on the ground showed the high-tech actuators are extremely reliable. The procedures were tested before launch using a sub-scale model of the telescope and Feinberg said he's confident the alignment process will work as planned. "When will we have an image of a star that's phased? I think that's going to be sometime in March, maybe late March," he said. "But then the next question is, when will we have the telescope fully aligned, including the secondary mirror, optimized for all the four instruments? The original plan had us achieving that a full four months into the mission. So that would be like the end of April." That still won't be enough for science observations to commence. Once the optical system is aligned, the team will focus on testing and calibrating NIRCam, a combination camera and spectrograph, and the telescope's three other spectrographic instruments, one of which includes the fine guidance sensor needed to keep Webb locked on target. That process will take another two months or so to complete. Only then will focused"first light" images be released to the public. "We want to make sure that the first images that the world sees, that humanity see, do justice to this $10 billion telescope and are not those of, you know, hey look, a star," said Jane Rigby, Webb operations project scientist at Goddard. "So we are planning a series of 'wow' images to be released at the end of commissioning when we start normal science operations that are designed to showcase what this telescope can do ... and to really knock everybody's socks off." Space & Astronomy