Days pass before NASA’s massive new observatory shows us the cosmos like we’ve never seen it before.
The James Webb Space Telescope is going through a complicated six-month commissioning period. With just a few weeks of work left, NASA and its partners released an update on Monday (May 9) outlining what’s next for Webb as he prepares to survey the early universe. .
The good news is that so far the $10 billion observatory is exceeding expectations as it enters a series of long-awaited scientific work that mission staff hope will last up to 20 years.
“There are no adjustments to the telescope’s optics that would provide hardware improvements or scientific performance, and we will regularly monitor and maintain the telescope’s alignment throughout the duration of the mission,” said scientist Michael McElwain. of the Webb Observatory Project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. told reporters on Monday.
Live updates: NASA James Webb Space Telescope Mission
Related: How the James Webb Space Telescope works in pictures
But some key adjustments will be needed over the next two months as engineers complete the final 200 or so activities (out of about 1,000 total commissioning steps) to get Webb ready for work. “We will characterize the performance of each science instrument mode well enough to know how to take science-grade data with it,” McElwain said, adding that some of this work will continue through the first science period.
McElwain noted that 17 scientific instrument modes will come online over the next two months. A new tracker on NASA’s main Webb website allows the public to follow the progress of testing the 17 modes.
“Each of these modes has different criteria that we’re looking for; we want to see that performance is achieved,” McElwain said. “Each of these modes will be considered independently,” he added. “We will have a council that will do the examination.”
Additionally, Webb’s operational capabilities will be tested, specifically his ability to track objects in our own solar system, which move much faster in the telescope’s view than distant objects, as well as the observatory’s ability to maintain precise alignment when changing targets. Additionally, wavelength calibration will be performed to ensure that Webb is correctly recording the brightness and spectra (a “fingerprint” of light that allows scientists to identify the elements present) of his targets.
McElwain pointed out that “static wavefront error”, a measure of the observatory’s performance when collecting light from distant objects, is much better than that calculated by engineers before launch.
Put simply, the telescope works with better accuracy and position than expected.
“We’re actually doing much better than the requirements,” he said.