Nasa begin months-long effort to focus James Webb space telescope | Astronomy

NASA has embarked on the painstaking, months-long process of putting its newly launched James Webb Space Telescope into focus, a mission set to be completed in time for the eruptive eye in the sky to begin looking at the universe by early summer.

Mission control engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, begin sending their initial commands to tiny actuators called actuators that slowly position and adjust the telescope’s main mirror.

Animation shows James Webb Telescope mirrors unfolding in real time - video
Animation shows James Webb Telescope mirrors unfolding in real time – video

The primary mirror is made of 18 hexagonal pieces of gold-plated beryllium metal, and the mirror measures 6.5 meters (21 ft 4 in) in diameter — a light-gathering surface much larger than the previous Hubble Webb Telescope’s 30-year-old.

Folded together to fit inside the cargo compartment of the rocket that carried the telescope into space, the eighteen sections were folded together with the rest of its structural components during the two-week period after Webb’s launch on Christmas Day.

These sections must now be separated from the fasteners holding them in place for the release and then moved forward approximately one centimeter from their original formation – a 10-day process – before they are aligned to form a single unbroken surface light array.

The alignment will take an additional three months, said Lee Feinberg, Goddard’s Webb optical telescope element manager.

Aligning the primary mirror segments to form one large mirror, Feinberg said, means that each segment is “in line with one-five-thousandth the thickness of a human hair”.

“All of this requires us to invent things that haven’t been done before,” he added, such as actuators that are designed to move incrementally at -240 degrees Celsius (-400 degrees Fahrenheit) in the vacuum of space.

The telescope’s small secondary mirror, which is designed to direct the light collected from the primary lens to a webcam and other instruments, must also be aligned to function as part of a coherent optical system.

If all goes as planned, Feinberg said, the telescope should be ready to take its first science images in May, which will be processed over another month before being released to the public.

The $9 billion telescope, billed by NASA as the premier space science observatory in the next decade, will essentially display the universe in the infrared spectrum, allowing it to peer through the clouds of gas and dust where stars are born. Hubble worked primarily at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Webb is about 100 times more powerful than Hubble, which enables it to observe things at greater distances, and therefore farther in time, than Hubble or any other telescope.
Astronomers say this will offer a glimpse into the universe never seen before — dating back only 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that led to the expansion of the visible universe an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies.

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