The James Webb Space Telescope is in its final orbit and has its science instruments turned on, but it’ll still be several months before the world’s most powerful space telescope is ready to collect science data. That’s because the telescope not only needs to reach a stable temperature but also because it needs to go through the careful and complex process of aligning its mirrors. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to see from this brand new telescope — in fact, NASA has just released both the first image captured by the telescope and even a selfie snapped by one of the telescope’s cameras.
The first image might not look like much, but it’s an indication that Webb’s NIRCam instrument is working to collect light from its target — a particularly bright star called HD 84406. The 18 points of light in the image represent each of the 18 segments of the telescope’s primary mirror, which are gradually being brought into alignment by making nanometer adjustments. “The entire Webb team is ecstatic at how well the first steps of taking images and aligning the telescope are proceeding,” said Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for the NIRCam instrument in a statement. “We were so happy to see that light makes its way into NIRCam.”
The image is a mosaic, stitched together from a huge 54 gigabytes of raw data captured over a 25-hour period. This is just a portion of the full mosaic, showing the same star imaged 18 times. This is invaluable data for the team as they work on aligning the mirrors to bring the telescope into focus.
In addition, the NIRCam instrument used a special lens to snap an image of the telescope itself, showing the distinctive hexagon-shaped mirror segments in the telescope’s first selfie. You can see one of the segments glowing brightly as that segment was pointed toward a star, while the other segments are currently at different alignments.
Over the next few months, the images captured by Webb will become sharper and show more details as the mirrors are aligned and the telescope’s other three instruments reach their stable temperatures and start capturing data as well. For now, the images show that the telescope is healthy and operating for the first time. “Launching Webb to space was, of course, an exciting event, but for scientists and optical engineers, this is a pinnacle moment, when light from a star is successfully making its way through the system down onto a detector,” said Michael McElwain, Webb observatory project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.