NewslettersSign inAPP
spainSPAINargentinaARGENTINAchileCHILEcolombiaCOLOMBIAusaUSAmexicoMEXICOperuPERUlatin usaLATIN USAamericaAMERICA


Waiting on first images from NASA's James Webb telescope

It's a million miles away, but as mission operations fine-tune the telescope's primary mirror, a glimpse into the origins of the universe edges closer.

NASA's James Webb telescope: first images of our origins

It's a million miles from Earth but that's nothing compared with the distance it's going to be spying on over the coming weeks, months and years. We may have had to wait an extra 20 years or so to finally get the James Webb Space Telescope out of our atmosphere but finally - after a Christmas launch - it has reached its sun-orbiting position and is readying itself to share unprecedented snaps of the beginning of our universe. I bet you, like me, can't wait to see the images it produces.

James Webb telescope: a glimpse into the past

The mission was the successor to the famous Hubble Space telescope, which was launched in 1990, with the objective of James Webb to build upon its success, by using different technology -- scanning infrared radiation, thereby seeing beyond visual, or infra-red, radiation -- and having a full 24-hour window in which to capture pictures due to its increased distance from Earth. Hubble and James Webb will remain in service alongside one-another.

You may also enjoy:

It was on Monday, a month after launch, when the position was reached thanks to some final course-correcting thrusting by on-board rockets. Now, at a position of orbital stability between the Earth and sun known as Lagrange Point Two, or L2, confirmed by the team, excitement is growing as to when we will begin our time-travelling glimpse.

From its vantage point in space, Webb will follow a special "halo" path in constant alignment with Earth, as the planet and telescope circle the sun in tandem, enabling uninterrupted radio contact. By comparison, Hubble orbits the Earth from 340 miles (547 km) away, passing in and out of the planet's shadow every 90 minutes, hence the smaller window for activity.

The combined pull of the sun and Earth at L2 will hold the telescope firmly in place so it takes little additional rocket thrust to keep Webb from drifting, Eric Smith, NASA's program scientist for Webb, told Reuters in an interview last week. The mission operations centre has also begun fine-tuning the telescope's primary mirror - an array of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-coated beryllium metal measuring 21 feet, 4 inches (6.5 meters) across - far larger than Hubble's main mirror.

Its size and design to operate mainly in the infrared spectrum will allow Webb to peer through clouds of gas and dust and observe objects at greater distances, thus farther back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope.

These features are expected to usher in a revolution in astronomy, giving a first view of infant galaxies dating to just 100 million years after the Big Bang, the theoretical flashpoint that set the expansion of the known universe in motion an estimated 13.8 billion years ago.

Webb's instruments also make it ideal to search for signs of potentially life-supporting atmospheres around scores of newly documented exoplanets -- celestial bodies orbiting distant stars -- and to observe worlds much closer to home, such as Mars and Saturn's icy moon Titan.

When will we see the first James Webb telescope images?

It will take several more months of work to prepare Webb for its astronomical debut. The 18 segments of its principal mirror, which had been folded together to fit inside the cargo bay of the rocket that carried the telescope to space, were unfurled with the rest of its structural components during a two-week period following Webb's launch on 25 December 2021.

Those segments were recently detached from fasteners that held them in place for the launch and slowly moved forward half an inch from their original configuration, allowing them to be adjusted into a single, unbroken, light-collecting surface.

The 18 segments now need to be aligned to achieve the mirror's proper focus, a process that will take three months to complete.

As the alignment progresses, ground teams will start activating the observatory's spectrograph, camera and other instruments. This will be followed by two months calibrating the instruments themselves, Smith said.

If all goes smoothly, Webb should be ready to begin making observations by early summer, with initial images used to demonstrate the instruments function properly. But Smith said Webb's most ambitious work, including plans to train its mirror on objects farthest from Earth, will take longer to conduct.

The telescope is an international collaboration led by NASA in partnership with the European and Canadian space agencies. Northrop Grumman Corp was the primary contractor. People across the globe now wait to see what more we can learn about our existence.


To be able to comment you must be registered and logged in. Forgot password?