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James Webb telescope reaches ‘perfect’ alignment ahead of debut science images

All four science instruments on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope have achieved “perfect alignment” in advance of the telescope’s official debut this summer, project officials said in a news teleconference on Monday (May 9).

“I’m delighted to report that the telescope alignment has been completed with performance even better than we had anticipated,” Michael McElwain, James Webb Space Telescope project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland said, according to CBS News. “We basically reached a perfect telescope alignment. There’s no adjustment to the telescope optics that would make material improvements to our science performance.”

To illustrate the telescope’s readiness, NASA shared a teaser image taken by Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument, or MIRI. The new image shows a side-by-side comparison of observations of a nearby galaxy taken by Webb, versus observations of the same galaxy taken previously by NASA’s now-retired Spitzer Space Telescope.

While the Spitzer image shows a blur of seven or so nearby stars located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (a satellite galaxy that orbits the Milky Way), the Webb image of the same region captures the foreground stars in sharp detail, offset by wispy clouds of interstellar gas and hundreds of background stars and galaxies, captured in what NASA calls “unprecedented detail.”

With its instruments aligned, the Webb telescope awaits a final instrument calibration before it officially begins studying distant stars later this summer, NASA said. In July, the telescope will share its first suite of science images, targeting galaxies and objects that “highlight all the Webb sciences themes … from the early universe, to galaxies over time, to the life cycle of stars, and to other worlds,” Klaus Pontoppidan, Webb project scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, said in the news briefing.

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