As reported by Digital Lookthe James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one step away from starting to operate effectively, and the engineers responsible for the observatory are making final adjustments to the instruments that comprise it.
Some test footage was taken and released by the team during the commissioning phase over the last few months. Now, a notable target has come into focus: the Large Magellanic Cloud.
According to Scott Friedman, JWST Chief Commissioning Scientist at NASA’s Space Science Telescope Institute, the main purpose of the record of our galactic neighbor was to calibrate any distortion and improve the sharpness of the images.
Using its coolest instrument, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), the next-generation telescope was able to capture the Large Magellanic Cloud with clarity unprecedented in the history of astronomical observations, proving its very high performance.
The new MIRI image shows the chemistry of the galaxy’s interstellar gas in the finest detail yet, including the emission of carbon and hydrogen molecules called “polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons,” considered some of the building blocks of life.
At a press conference broadcast live over the Internet on Monday, the team’s scientists said this imaging capability is critical to helping the telescope understand how stars and protoplanetary systems are formed.
“This is a very good scientific example of what Webb will do for us in the years to come,” said Chris Evans, project scientist for the observatory at the European Space Agency (ESA), a partner in the mission.
“We’ve done a lot of studies on the formation of stars and planets in our own galaxy, but here we’re looking at it in the Magellanic Clouds, so small outer galaxies, which are chemically less evolved than our Milky Way,” Evans added. “So this gives us a chance to look at the processes of star and planet formation in an environment very different from our own galaxy.”
Detailed perspective from James Webb telescope allows unprecedented view of galaxy processes
For comparison, the team released the image alongside one of the same target taken by the retired Spitzer Space Telescope – a pioneer, in its day, in generating high-resolution images of the universe. While Webb took his photo at 7.7 microns, Spitzer recorded it at 8.0 microns.
“Spitzer has done amazing things,” Evans said. “But it was limited by its spatial resolution, as it was optimized for wide-field surveys that capture celestial objects in general context.”
According to him, Webb’s detailed and close-up perspective will provide “an incredible view of processes in a different galaxy for the first time, clearing the dust.”
“We’re using mid-infrared to look through material that would otherwise be obscured at visible wavelengths,” he explained.
The new space telescope features a much larger primary mirror, improved detectors, and an observation point superior to that of Spitzer, which used to operate in an Earth orbit, as opposed to Webb’s orbit at the Second Lagrange Point (L2) between Earth and Earth. the Sun, about 1.5 million km away. According to its scientists, these factors will allow the observatory to access infrared information more clearly than its predecessor.
Knowing the location of stars in the Large Magellanic Cloud is a key advantage for astronomers, according to Michael McElwain, JWST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“We can use them for astrometric calibrations,” he explained, adding that this is important for calibrating scientific instruments. “Of course, these images are also very spectacular.”
Soon, mission personnel will also test the observatory’s ability to track objects in the solar system, such as planets, satellites, rings, asteroids and comets. Scientists will be focused on ensuring that Webb can do this correctly, given that he is particularly sensitive to starlight.
“We will also measure changes in the telescope’s alignment as we point it at different locations,” Evans said. To do this, Webb is undergoing a thermal stability test, whereby it oscillates between positions in which it receives more or less sunlight.
While the team has yet to disclose which target it will focus on first when its testing work is complete, the scientists said the observatory is on schedule to begin its science around June or July.
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