James Webb Space Telescope begins lining up its golden mirrors

The James Webb Space Telescope's 21.3-foot (6.5 meter) diameter primary mirror.
The James Webb Space Telescope's 21.3-foot (6.5 meter) diameter primary mirror. (Image credit: NASA/Chris Gunn)

Just weeks after the excitement of launch, the James Webb Space Telescope is already seeking focus in space.

Engineers are beginning alignment procedures for the recently unfolded 18-segment massive golden mirror. The work will eventually get these individual reflectors working as a single focusing device, NASA officials wrote in a blog update posted on Wednesday (Jan. 12).

The procedure began with engineers commanding 132 actuators that will move and position the primary mirror segments and the secondary mirror, just to make sure everything was responded as expected. The team also ensured the actuators are working to guide Webb's fine steering mirror, which will be used during the image stabilization process.

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The observatory team will spend about 10 days working to move the mirror segments out of their launch alignments, with more precise work continuing beyond that time.

The goal is to get all of Webb's pieces working as a single observatory in space, which will be essential for the telescope's ambitious agenda of telling us more about the early universe and the life history of various objects that are a part of it.

NASA estimates that all told, the alignment will take about three months, which should bring this work into mid-April as long as everything runs to schedule. Webb launched on Dec. 25 and may have enough fuel for 20 years of science thanks to the precision of the launch, but that all depends on the mirrors working properly.

"Ground teams have now begun instructing the primary mirror segments and secondary mirror to move from their stowed-for-launch configuration, off of snubbers that kept them snug and safe from rattling from vibration," NASA said. "These movements will take at least ten days, after which engineers can begin the three-month process of aligning the segments to perform as a single mirror."

Webb is still en route to a "parking spot" called Earth-sun Lagrange Point 2 (L2) about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from our planet. It will make an engine firing on Jan. 23 to glide toward that zone.

The next-generation telescope must complete about six months of commissioning activities, then will embark on a suite of early science programs this summer, spanning everything from studying exoplanets to probing the beginning of the universe.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace