It’s always a thrill to turn on a new device for the first time. That’s what astronomers have just done with the giant James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The technological marvel has arrived at its LeGrange 2 (L2) orbital node and has now been pointed at its first star. Their ultimate goal? To extend the sight of humankind to the very beginning of our universe.

The JWST launched on Christmas 2021 and was an immediate success, everything worked as designed the first time. NASA/JPL designed and built much of the spacecraft, and they aim for perfection. Though one of JPL’s hallmarks is their willingness to keep trying and innovating after countless fails until they find a solution, they needed JWST to perform over 300 more robotic movements perfectly, just to start. To quote now-retired former NASA Chief Flight DirectorGene Kranz, “failure is not an option.”

30 minutes after launch the spacecraft was already beginning to deploy everything from antennae to heat shields. These had to be carefully folded to fit inside the craft, and there could be no do-overs. Designers studied origami for inspiration. You can download an artistic version here – you can download an origami template from NASA and fold your own copy of the massive James Webb telescope mirror if your skills are sufficiently advanced to tackle it.

To observe 13.7 billion years in the past, to the era after the Big Bang,the JWST has to operate in a stable, ultra-cold environment. -233C (-388F). The nearest place like that is literally a million miles from Earth, called L2, or LeGrange Point 2. This distant locale makes it unlikely there will ever be a repair or update mission to JWST. It simply has to work thanks to brilliant engineering and exhaustive testing, using AI and robots, much like a Mars mission.

Why so cold? Because the observable universe is expanding, stretching and cooling off the light from the past. This also causes redshift, making light from the early universe appear reddish to us.

The telescope arrived at L2 Jan. 24 with a 5 min burst of rocket fire, and settled into a permanent orbit around L2.

Now the telescope can look at the cosmos.

Animation of first light hitting mirror

The first target star is located 240 light-years from Earth and part of the constellation that contains The Big Dipper. The images will help the ground teams align the 18 golden segments of Webb’s 21-foot-wide main mirror. This is called commissioning. A close by star makes it easier to focus.

“At the beginning, we will have 18 individual blurry images,” Mark McCaughrean, a scientist at the JWST Science Working Group and senior advisor at the European Space Agency (ESA), who is familiar with the process, told “At the end, we will have one nice sharp image.”

The mirrors will be moved robotically in nanometer increments (0.000000001 m) many times until they all line up and move as one surface together.

The mission operations team’s next major step is to turn off all instrument heaters. This will allow the telescope to cool down to temperatures where infrared radiation can be measured. This will take several months, until around June 1.

Then we’ll see the first images from the 4 instruments on board: MIRI NIRCam, NIRSpec, and FGS/NIRISS. The Near Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSPec) and the Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRiss) tell us about the chemical composition of objects. NIRCam and MIRI, will produce stunning images of stars and galaxies.

In addition to the first stars and galaxies, Webb will contribute to the study of exoplanets, star formation, dark matter and even the solar system and its asteroids. 

This is NASA’s official site with some cool apps to follow the telescope’s ten year mission.

The JWST team at JPL with a model show just how large the world’s biggest space telescope really is.


David Raiklen
David Raiklen

David Raiklen wrote, directed and scored his first film at age 9. He began studying keyboard and composing at age 5. He attended, then taught at UCLA, USC and CalArts. Among his teachers are John Williams and Mel Powel.
He has worked for Fox, Disney and Sprint. David has received numerous awards for his work, including the 2004 American Music Center Award. Dr. Raiklen has composed music and sound design for theater (Death and the Maiden), dance (Russian Ballet), television (Sing Me a Story), cell phone (Spacey Movie), museums (Museum of Tolerance), concert (Violin Sonata ), and film (Appalachian Trail).
His compositions have been performed at the Hollywood Bowl and the first Disney Hall. David Raiken is also host of a successful radio program, Classical Fan Club.