NASA Begins Months-Long Process of Bringing James Webb Space Telescope Into Focus

by Jennifer Shea
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Get ready for some pictures from the far-flung corners of outer space, Outsiders. The catch? They won’t be ready ‘til this summer. But NASA is busy positioning the telescope that will take them as we speak.

NASA has begun the long process of focusing its just-launched James Webb Space Telescope, a process that will last through early summer.

On Wednesday, mission control engineers at the Greenbelt, Maryland Goddard Space Flight Center started sending their first commands to the telescope. Specifically, they began moving some tiny motors known as actuators that will gradually position and fine-tune the telescope’s main mirror, Reuters reports.

NASA envisions the telescope as the preeminent space-science observatory for the next decade. The $9 billion-dollar equipment observes outer space in the infrared spectrum, whereas Hubble functioned at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths.

Webb is roughly 100 times stronger than Hubble. It can see through clouds of gas and dust to observe objects at farther distances, and farther back into the formation of the universe, than Hubble or other telescopes can.

Telescope Should Be Set to Capture First Images in May

Webb’s main mirror is 21 feet and 4 inches in diameter, much broader than Hubble’s, which enables it to better gather up light. It’s made of 18 hexagonal pieces of gold-plated beryllium metal.

Those 18 pieces folded together to fit within the cargo bay of the rocket that launched the telescope into space. During the two weeks after Webb’s Dec. 25 launch, those pieces, along with the rest of the telescope’s parts, slowly began unfurling.

It will take 10 days for the pieces to detach from the fasteners that kept them in place during the launch. They then have to move forward half an inch and align to make a smooth, unified, light-gathering surface. That alignment process will take three full months.

The plan is for Webb to take its first pictures in May. NASA would require another month to process them. So the earliest they could go out to the public is this upcoming June.

Alignment Is a Tricky Process

“All of this required us to invent things that had never been done before,” Lee Feinberg, the Webb optical telescope element manager at Goddard, told Reuters. For starters, they had to build the actuators positioning the telescope’s main mirror to move gradually at -400 Fahrenheit in outer space.

Moreover, the alignment process requires each segment to align “to one-five-thousandth the thickness of a human hair,” Feinberg said. And the telescope has a smaller secondary mirror that also has to be brought into alignment.

But once it’s all set up, astronomers are eager to get a peek into a part of outer space never previously glimpsed. They plan to snap images of a part of the cosmos that dates back to a mere 100 million years after the Big Bang. It should tell them a lot about the formation of our universe. And it will enable them to see the creation of new stars.

It should be a busy three months for the Webb Telescope. In the meantime, stay tuned for updates.