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James Webb Space Telescope captures its first image that has exceeded all expectations

After years of delays, technical difficulties, budget problems, major redesigns, and threats of cancellation, the James Webb Space Telescope was launched by NASA on 25th December 2021. The James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful telescope ever sent into space and is set to become the successor of the Hubble Telescope as NASA's flagship mission in astrophysics and cosmology. It is named after James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968.

The James Webb Space Telescope has greatly improved infrared sensitivity and resolution and has the capability to view objects that are too far and old for Hubble to view. The telescope has a much bigger mirror area to capture light. While Hubble had 4 square metres of light capturing area, JWST has 25.37 square metres. As of 24 January 2022, the sun shield, mirrors, and other components were fully unfolded to their operational configuration, the spacecraft entered orbit at its destination, and all instruments were successfully powered on. On 3 February 2022, NASA tweeted that the telescope detected its first photons, and on 11 February 2022, NASA announced the telescope had almost completed phase 1 of alignment, with every segment of its primary mirror having located, imaged, and approximately centered the target star HD 84406. Phase 1 of the 7-phase alignment process was completed on February 18, 2022, and phases 2 and 3 were completed a week later on February 25, 2022, meaning that the 18 primary segments now work in unison, but still act as 18 smaller telescopes rather than a single larger one. Several weeks are still needed for the telescope to cool to its operational temperature. Mirror alignment and focusing and final testing and calibration will take about five months in total, potentially including the first formal images, before planned research begins. On 16 March 2022, the space telescope was reported to be "fully focused".

The first picture of the target star, HD 84406, was captured on the 16th of March and the scientific community is in raptures. The image is not of particular interest but the quality of the image has exceeded everyone's expectations.

The bright red glowing orb in the middle surrounded by spokes is the image of the target star. This star is extremely faint for the human eye to see, but the JWST has made it possible to view it with such extreme focus and precision. The small dots and spirals are extremely distant galaxies and it is the first time in history that such a precise image has been taken.

“The telescope’s performance so far is everything that we dared to hope,” says Jane Rigby, Webb operations project scientist at Goddard. “The engineering images that we saw today are as sharp and as crisp as the images that Hubble can take, but are at a wavelength of light that is totally invisible to Hubble. So this is making the invisible universe snapping into very, very sharp focus.”

One hundred times more sensitive than Hubble, and operating in the realm of infrared, James Webb is already capturing galaxies far more distant than any we have before.

“There’s no way that Webb can look for 2,000 seconds at any point in the sky, and not get an incredibly deep field,” Rigby says. “This is going to be the future from now on. Wherever we look, it’s a deep field. Without even really breaking a sweat, we’re seeing back in time to galaxies that we’re seeing the light as it looked billions of years ago.”

The JWST, in the future, will capture images of parts of the universe that are extremely far away. This will be a look into the past since the images captured will have come from when the universe was just a few hundred million years old, thereby revolutionizing our understanding of the universe and how it works. Galaxies that were invisible to Hubble will become visible to the JWST since it captures infrared radiation.

The telescope will take a total of 5 months to become fully functional and then we can expect a decade or two of interesting discoveries that will potentially change how we look at our universe.

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