NASA’s very expensive James Webb Space Telescope once suffered the impact of a dust-sized micrometeorite on one of its primary mirror segments, about a month before the official start of science operations.
Fortunately, the engineers knew this was coming. They designed the telescope’s massive mirror segments to be able to withstand such impacts, but this latest impact was a little too big for comfort, according to an update from NASA .
And that doesn’t bode well, given that it’s certainly not the last time debris will crash into this $10 billion space observatory.
For now, however, the game is far from over for the telescope.
“After initial evaluations, the team found that the telescope is still performing at a level that exceeds all mission requirements, despite a marginally detectable effect in the data,” the update read. “Extensive analyzes and measurements are underway. »
“We have always known that Webb would have to withstand the space environment, which includes ultraviolet light and charged particles from the Sun, cosmic rays from exotic sources in the galaxy, and occasional micrometeor strikes in our solar system,” said Paul Geithner, technical assistant project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in the update.
Despite the preparations, the particle was larger than those the team had prepared for, according to NASA.
Alarmingly, it appears that wasn’t even the first impact on the next-generation orbital observatory.
“Since launch, we’ve had four small, measurable micrometeorite strikes that were in line with expectations and this more recent one is larger than our degradation predictions assumed,” said Lee Feinberg, Optical Telescope Elements Manager. Webb at NASA Goddard, in the update.
There are several ways to minimize the effects of meteorite impacts on telescope operation. Engineers can cancel parts of its mirrors to minimize the effects, something they say they’ve already used for the segment that was hit.
The team can also have the Webb perform maneuvers to avoid incoming debris, much like the International Space Station.
It may sound scary, but contingencies seem to work. But this attack draws attention to the dangers of space and the fact that the useful life of the Webb probe could be shorter than we had hoped.