Where do James Webb’s unique “spikes” come from?

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Less than three months after its initial launch, it finally happened: the James Webb Space Telescope revealed its first telescope alignment evaluation image. For the first time, humanity’s latest, greatest flagship observatory has successfully aligned, focused, and finely phased the light from all 18 of its primary mirror segments to successfully produce a single image of a “test star.” The results are so good that even in this preliminary image, faint stars and galaxies located in the distant background can also be seen, resolved, and even examined in detail. It’s a remarkable triumph, and as NASA themselves announced, “every optical parameter that has been checked and tested is performing at, or above, expectations.”

Still, what you’ll notice, even on a cursory glance at the image, is that the main “star” imaged has a series of spikes coming out of it: six large ones and two smaller ones, all visible even zoomed out and at low resolution. For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope only had four spikes attached to every star, and an upcoming 25-meter ground-based telescope, the Giant Magellan Telescope, will be the first observatory of its kind to have no spikes on its stars at all. Here’s what we can expect, as far as spikes go, from the James Webb Space Telescope, even at full, maximum power.

Artist rending showing light reflecting off of the primary and secondary mirrors of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope after its deployment in space.

(Credit: NASA/Mike McClare)

The first thing you have to realize about the James Webb Space Telescope is that, unlike Hubble, it is not a single-dish mirror. Instead, there are 18 individual segments to its primary mirror, and the goal of an optimally-configured James Webb will be to have all 18 of those segments function as though they’re a single mirror, in a single plane, with optical perfection.

What does “optical perfection” mean in this instance?

It means that each one of the 18 segments will make up a section of a perfect mirror, all designed to have the cumulative light striking it from a distant, observed target focus down to a single point precisely in the telescope’s instruments. This is a tremendously ambitious task, requiring that we compensate for:

  • the spacing in between each segment,
  • the edges, and in particular, the sharp corners, of each segment,
  • the optical imperfections induced by the trusses that hold the secondary mirror in front of the primary mirror,
  • and the individual variations both across each segment and from segment-to-segment.

This image shows the size and scale of each of the 18 primary mirror segments that are installed on the James Webb Space Telescope, with a human for comparison. In space, just ~4 millimeters of space separates each of the hexagonal segments from one another, but 4 millimeters is enormous compared to the ~20 nanometer parabolic shape that the entire plane traced by all 18 mirrors must occupy.

(Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham/Emmett Given)

Each one of the individual segments themselves, back at various points in the 20th century, would have made a spectacular, cutting-edge observatory all by itself. If you want to focus your light properly, you need to avoid the problem that initially plagued the Hubble Space Telescope: spherical aberration. Spherical shapes, for both lenses and mirrors, are easier to manufacture than other curves, like parabolas, and the shapes of large lenses and mirrors can be distorted by gravity.

As a result, when Webb, which was built on Earth but operates in space, was launched, there was a worry that everything might not fall into place properly. Even though the mirrors were checked and re-checked and re-re-checked again and again, there was always the worry that something would be off with the optics. If that was the case, then the mirrors would be unable to focus the distant starlight into the single image that was desired, and we’d have to find some way to compensate for the blurriness that would arise.

A simulation of spherical aberration in an optical system with a circular, unobstructed aperture admitting a monochromatic point source. You can see the extreme difference between light that’s focused by not quite enough (top), light that’s focused too much (bottom), and light that’s focused optimally (center). Hubble’s primary mirror had problems with spherical aberration; Webb’s mirrors do not.

(Credit: Mdf at English Wikipedia)

For the 18 mirror segments that James Webb possesses, there are three individual designs that needed to be manufactured six times each:

  1. the “A” segments, which are for the interior segments, where five of the six hexagonal edges will border another mirror segment, but the innermost one will leave a gap for light to be reflected inside, onto the instruments,
  2. the “B” segments, which are at the outside corners of the hexagon-shaped honeycomb, each have three edges that border another mirror segment, but three edges that comprise the outside border of the primary mirror,
  3. and the “C” segments, which go between the “B” segments and possess four edges that border another mirror segment, but two edges that, along with the “B” segments, define the outside border of the primary mirror.

As a result, the shape of the James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror makes up a shape known as a tricontagon, or a 30-sided polygon. This is a very, very complicated geometrical shape to deal with, and the technical achievements needed to produce a quality data product are literally astronomical.

This image shows the 18 individual segments that make up James Webb’s primary mirror, and the three independent sets of mirrors, labeled with letters A, B, and C and numbers 1-6, that correspond to the installed position of each mirror on the currently deployed telescope.

(Credit: NASA/James Webb Space Telescope team)

In its unfocused state, the James Webb Space Telescope would simply be made up of 18 individual mirrors, each with their own shape, their own plane of focus, and each one would produce their own image for whatever object it was that we were attempting to observe.

The goal is to have each of these 18 segments form a single plane, together, that has a parabolic shape. At some 6.5 meters (around 21 feet) across, the variations in the plane, both across each segment and from segment-to-segment, should be right around ~20 nanometers for optimal performance. That’s an incredible precision, by the way; if the surface of the Earth were as smooth, over the Earth’s entire size, as Webb’s precision needs to be for its optics, then the highest mountain and the deepest ocean trench would only depart from sea level by about 2 centimeters (less than one inch), total.

When Webb took its very first image of a star, attempting to see what sort of image the 18 segments produced, it was clear that a lot of work remained ahead of the team.

james webb spikes

This image mosaic was created by pointing the telescope at a bright, isolated star in the constellation Ursa Major known as HD 84406. This star was chosen specifically because it is easily identifiable and not crowded by other stars of similar brightness, which helps to reduce background confusion. Each dot within the mosaic is labeled by the corresponding primary mirror segment that captured it. These initial results closely match expectations and simulations.

(Credit: NASA)

You’ll notice, when you view the initial (above) image, you see 18 different sources of light: one corresponding to each segment of the primary mirror. You’ll also notice that these sources appear all over the place, rather than in the desired “honeycomb” configuration that the mirror segments themselves take on. Finally, you’ll notice that each one of these sources doesn’t correspond to a single point-like source, which is what you’d expect for a star, but that each one winds up distorted and spread out over a volume of space.

When you take a true point source of light and image it through any sort of optical system, you’re not going to get a “point” back again. Instead, you’ll get a shape unique to your equipment, and that can be described by a mathematical equation known as a point-spread function. We can know that we’re looking at a star, and that the star ought to appear as a single point of light, but that’s not what we see. For James Webb, with its 18 hexagonal segments configured to make a tricontagon overall, it results in an incredibly complicated point-spread function that astronomers working on the telescope simply call, “the nightmare snowflake.”

Even with the substantial progress that was made to focus and align the individual mirror segments into a single plane, and then to combine those 18 individual images into a single one that best represents the true point source we’re observing, the “nightmare snowflake” clearly rears its ugly head.

This three-panel animation shows the difference between 18 unaligned individual images, those same images after each segment had been better configured, and then the final image where the individual images from all 18 mirror had been stacked and co-added together. The pattern made by that star, known as the “nightmare snowflake,” can be improved upon with better calibration.

(Credits: NASA/STScI, compiled by E. Siegel)

The individual star you see at the end, above, represents what happens when all of the mirrors are focused and phased together. But everywhere you have an edge, a gap, or something that blocks a portion of the light from coming into your primary mirror, you’re going to get an image artifact, and that’s something we must be able to successfully correct for.

That involves tweaking the shape of each individual mirror through the use of actuators, and doing so in a wavelength-dependent way. It involves ensuring that each individual mirror not only makes its own perfectly parabolic shape, but that the shapes between mirrors all correspond to a different portion of the same parabola. And, even with gaps that are approximately ~4 millimeters between the individual mirror segments, that one single parabola needs to be perfect down to a tolerance of ~20 nanometers.

Even at that, there are still the edges to reckon with, and the fact that there are supports for holding the secondary mirror in place that cross the plane of the primary mirror.

This new “selfie” was created using a specialized pupil imaging lens inside of the NIRCam instrument that was designed to take images of the primary mirror segments instead of images of the sky. This configuration is not used during scientific operations and is used strictly for engineering and alignment purposes. Note the presence of the three struts that hold the secondary mirror in place.

(Credit: NASA/STScI)

In the case of James Webb, specifically, there are three axes that the supports rest on, and they cause three sets of inevitable spikes that will always appear in images of point sources, such as stars.

This isn’t unique to the James Webb Space Telescope, by the way. Any reflecting telescope where the light is reflected back in front of the telescope and into a secondary mirror, where the secondary mirror then reflects the light into a “hole” located in the primary mirror itself (and then, into the instruments), needs that secondary mirror held in place in front of the primary mirror by something.

However those supports are configured then determines the shape of the spikes that you’ll see, with each unique support creating its own diffraction spikes that are perpendicular to that support structure itself.

James Webb spike

Comparison of diffraction spikes for various strut arrangements of a reflecting telescope. The inner circle represents the secondary mirror, while the outer circle represents the primary, with the “spike” pattern shown underneath. Webb will have a configuration most similar to the rightmost illustration; Hubble’s was more like the next-to-last one.

(Credit: Cmglee/Wikimedia Commons)

The Hubble Space Telescope, whose images are arguably the most ubiquitous and recognizable of all telescopes in human history, is configured in a typical way for a reflecting telescope: with supports for the secondary mirror shaped like the “+” sign. Its perpendicular supports ensure that there will be heavy diffraction spikes making a “+” shape coming off of every source that qualifies as point-like: the individual stars it can see.

Other sources, however, such as distant galaxies and nebulae, are what we know of as extended sources, as their light is spread out over a larger area on the sky. As a result, these spikes are non-existent, since light arrives from more than just a point, and that optical effect is effectively washed out over the large angular area that the extended object provides. In the (Hubble) image below, for example, you can easily identify the points of light that are stars contained within our own Milky Way by their diffraction spikes, whereas the fainter, more distant, extended objects definitively do not possess them.

Hickson compact group 31, as imaged by Hubble, is a spectacular “constellation”, but almost as prominent are the few stars from our own galaxy visible, noted by the diffraction spikes. When viewed by James Webb, the stars will possess six, not four, diffraction spikes. In only one case, that of the GMT, will those spikes be absent.

(Credit: NASA, ESA, J. English (U. Manitoba), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA); Acknowledgement: S. Gallagher (U. Western Ontario))

As the fine phasing of the James Webb Space Telescope continues, we’ll continue to see the “nightmare snowflake” evolve closer and closer towards its desired shape: of simply six spikes coming off of every star, and of the more distant, extended objects looking more and more pristine.

On March 11, 2022, the James Webb Space Telescope team at NASA produced what’s been labeled as a Telescope Alignment Evaluation Image, and the results are immediately apparent as spectacular. Instead of a snowflake with all sorts of artifacts emanating from it, and instead of an extended point where the light is clearly spread out over a large area, instead the star itself looks crisp, collimated, and has six major diffraction spikes in the expected directions. Taken only with the NIRCam instrument, it’s already well-enough aligned to reveal background stars and galaxies, with many of the background stars displaying their own diffraction spikes as well.

James webb spikes

While the purpose of this image was to focus on the bright star at the center for alignment evaluation, Webb’s optics and NIRCam are so sensitive that the galaxies and stars seen in the background show up. At this stage of Webb’s mirror alignment, known as “fine phasing,” each of the primary mirror segments have been adjusted to produce one unified image of the same star.

(Credit: NASA/STScI)

This isn’t, however, “as good as it gets” for James Webb. If you look at this with a very careful eye and pay attention to details, you’ll notice many things about this star and the rays that come off of it. For example:

  • Each of the six major diffraction spikes has a set of perhaps five-to-seven major streaks, rather than all being aligned into a single spike.
  • Between the spikes, there are smaller rays of light that come off and prevent us from viewing objects that are too close to the luminous star.
  • In the horizontal plane, where there should be no diffraction spikes, we have an extra, fainter, but still substantial set of spikes: a 7th and 8th spike, both of which should be eliminated.
  • And that if you examine the other stars or galaxies revealed in the image, you can see that they’re not pristine either, but rather have distortions consistent with Webb not yet being optimally aligned and configured.

In the image below, I’ve highlighted some of the details that the team will work to improve over the coming months. Even though progress has been spectacular over the first three months of Webb’s commissioning, you should be heartened to know that there are still months ahead of it before science operations begin, giving the team an opportunity to iron out as many of these details as possible before we start using the observatory’s capabilities to teach us as much as possible about the Universe.

This close-up of the previous image, released by NASA on March 16, shows details in the central diffraction spike and between them, as well as distorted details in some of the fainter background objects that have been revealed. There is still room for improvement, but progress to date has been spectacular.

(Credit: NASA/STScI; annotations by E. Siegel)

However, you shouldn’t assume that every telescope, or even every reflecting telescope, will always be stuck with this “diffraction spike” problem. Right now, on the first sets of images we’re seeing from James Webb, there are many more spikes and features than we should see when calibration is complete. At that point, there should be only the six major spikes and nothing else; the additional features should be absolutely minimized. The only reason a star should appear larger than a single point, excepting the spikes, should be if it’s bright enough to saturate the detector itself.

Moreover, there’s already a world-class telescope under construction that should be the first of its kind to produce images without any diffraction spikes. The Giant Magellan Telescope, slated for completion perhaps towards the end of the 2020s, is going to be approximately 25 meters in diameter, making it the second-largest optical telescope in the world behind the (also under construction) 39 meter European Extremely Large Telescope. But unlike its larger counterpart, which, like Webb, will be made up of large numbers of hexagonal segments tiled together, the Giant Magellan Telescope will only be made up of seven large, circular mirrors, all installed upon the same telescope mount.

The 25-meter Giant Magellan Telescope is currently under construction, and will be the greatest new ground-based observatory on Earth. The spidar arms, seen holding the secondary mirror in place, are specially designed so that their line-of-sight falls directly between the narrow gaps in the GMT mirrors.

(Credit: Giant Magellan Telescope/GMTO Corporation)

As a result of the Giant Magellan Telescope’s unique configuration, the three support struts that will hold the secondary mirrors in place will exist in the gaps between the primary mirror segments; they will not obstruct the light that reaches and reflects off of the telescope mirrors at all! Although there will be other image artifacts that arise, in particular a set of circular beads that appear along ring-like paths (Airy rings), simply observing the same object for about 15 minutes or longer will fill those beads in, creating our first cutting-edge images of stars using a reflecting telescope without any diffraction spikes at all.

The six spikes coming off of James Webb’s best configuration image to date will improve and narrow with time, and the remaining spikes and image artifacts should be improved upon in the coming months. Although Webb has often been called the successor to Hubble, it will be observing primarily in the infrared: the same sets of wavelengths previously viewed by another six-spiked space observatory: NASA’s Spitzer. Sure, Webb will always possess these spikes, but thanks to clever engineering, there will be other telescopes that won’t have them at all. We’re going to be getting not only a whole new view of the Universe, but an entirely novel experience in visualizing it. With each passing day, the potential of science and discovery with James Webb only gets more and more exciting.

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