Astronomers would describe this isolated, sunlike star as “boring” in any other setting — just like its serial number name.
However, NASA scientists discovered HD84406 260 light-years away, giving it a significant historical significance: the US space agency utilized it to confirm the optics work on the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope, the sky’s finest conservatory.
The release of a crystal clear snapshot of the star in the constellation Ursa Major coincided with the announcement on Wednesday. On Earth, it’s a little too faint to view with the human eye, but via Webb, it’s a blazing red beacon with enormous spikes.
Since its first image in February, which showed 18 different golden fuzzy blobs indicating a star, the telescope has gone a long way. NASA guaranteed that further instrument calibration will improve the equipment’s ability to make the star appear to be a star.
The new photograph fulfilled that promise. A midweek news conference’s undertone was easy to decipher:
See? We warned you.
“All of my sleepless nights and kind of fears are behind us now,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, assistant administrator for NASA’s scientific mission directorate.
#NASA: “Seeeeeeee? We told you we could make a star look like a star.” Will have more on this #JWST development later. #jameswebbspacetelescope #Webb https://t.co/JycDi2iQbT
— Elisha Sauers (@elishasauers) March 16, 2022
According to Marshall Perrin, Webb’s deputy telescope scientist, the telescope captures infrared light, which is ordinarily undetectable to human sight. Engineers used a red filter to tone down the black-and-white data in order to highlight the star’s visual contrast. Webb’s hexagonal mirror segments and the arms that hold the secondary mirror are responsible for the sharp pointed structures spreading from the center. They cause diffraction by altering the way light travels.
During the briefing, Perrin told Mashable, “You see that most intensely when you have a very bright star.”
On March 11, the Webb team completed the “fine-phasing” stage of telescope alignment. According to NASA officials, every optical measurement they’ve reviewed and tested thus far has performed as well as or better than planned. There have been no major flaws that could spoil future photographs.
Webb, a NASA, European Space Agency, and Canadian Space Agency cooperation, will examine some of the universe’s oldest and faintest light. The massive telescope will focus on the first 300 million years after the Big Bang, when many of the earliest stars and galaxies formed. Scientists will also use it to gaze into the atmospheres of exoplanets, which are worlds outside our solar system. Water and methane discoveries, for example, could indicate possible habitability or biological activity – essential components for life.
For the next 10 to 20 years, astronomers expect the telescope will usher in a golden age in our understanding of the universe, giving never-before-seen images of space billions of light-years away.
The image posted on Wednesday was intended to serve as a proof of concept. The ones that will be released in June, in full-resolution with scientific data, are expected to dazzle. NASA hasn’t said which celestial targets would be included in the first images.
However, scientists are already buzzing with anticipation after getting their first close peek into deep space. The Near-Infrared Camera and Webb’s optics are sufficiently sensitive that galaxies and other stars may be seen in the background of the HD84406 image.
“You can’t help but notice the thousands of galaxies in the background.” Jane Rigby, a project scientist, described them as “just stunning.” “There’s no way Webb can look at any point in the sky for 2,000 seconds and not go tremendously deep.”
NASA still has to work on getting the observatory ready to perform all of its scientific purposes. The crew will synchronize other sensors on the observatory during the next six weeks.
They are, however, preparing space enthusiasts for fireworks.
“From now on, this is going to be the future,” Rigby predicted. “It’s a deep field everywhere we look.”