NASA’s James Webb telescope is hit by a micrometeroid

Astronomers everywhere have high hopes for NASA’s James Webb telescope. It is meant to give us an insight into the first stars and galaxies that were ever formed and into the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. That’s why NASA and their partners had designed it to withstand tough situations, such as being bombarded by micrometeroids flying at extremely high speeds. Between May 23 and 25, a larger-than-expected micrometeoroid hit one of the telescope’s primary mirror segments. The incident was significant enough for NASA to capture a “marginally detectable effect in the data”, but not enough to affect the telescope’s performance.

In NASA’s announcement, it said that the James Webb team performed an initial analysis and found that it still performs at a level that “exceeds all mission requirements”. The space agency explained that their engineers relied on simulations and made actual test effects on mirror samples when they built the telescope to ensure that it was adequately fortified. For example, the telescope’s flight team can perform maneuvers to turn the optics away from known meteor showers. The recent impact it received was classified as an unavoidable incident, and the micrometeoroid was larger than what engineers could have tested on the ground.

The good news is that James Webb has the ability to adjust mirror positions to correct and minimize the impact of shocks like this. Its engineers have already made the first of several adjustments to compensate for the damage to the affected segment. The agency has also formed a team of engineers to look at ways to mitigate the impact of hits on this scale in the future. Since James Webb is meant to be Hubble’s replacement and is expected to provide us with invaluable data over the next 10 years – or 20, if all goes well – NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency will most likely do the best they can for to protect the space telescope.

Lee Feinberg, Webb Optical Telescopic Element Manager at NASA Goddard, said:

“With Webb’s mirrors exposed to space, we expected that sporadic micrometeoroid impacts would elegantly degrade the telescope’s performance over time. “We will use this flight data to update our performance analysis over time and also develop operational approaches to ensure that we maximize Webb’s image performance to the best of our ability for many years to come.”

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