Irreversible space rock damage won’t stop Webb telescope from exceeding expectations


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Yes, a tiny piece of rock hit the Webb telescope. No, the mission is not doomed.

You may have read misleading headlines highlighting that the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful observatory ever built, has suffered irreversible damage. These are excerpts from a new 55-page report describing the instrument’s excellent scientific results over the past six months as engineers built and tested its unprecedented space observation capabilities.

The Webb Telescope is in excellent shape overall. Here’s what you need to know about the state of the observatory that will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.


The first stunning space images from the James Webb telescope are here

What conclusion did scientists make about the state of the Webb telescope?

NASA and its partners, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, have concluded that Webb — even after a speeding micrometeoroid (a small rocky particle, often the size of dust) collided and caused a “significant irreversible change” in one of 18 telescopes . hexagonal mirrors with gold plating – “quite capable of making the discoveries for which they were built.”

It is important to note that they expect Webb exceed expectations. “Moreover, the scientific performance of JWST is better than expected in almost all cases,” Webb’s scientists write.

“JWST scientific performance is better than expected.”

Why is Webb expected to succeed? Its mirrors are clearer than required to achieve high scientific goals. Its targeting system, which locks on and tracks targets, is better than required. And its efficiency with a clear view of objects is better than the requirements.

And if that wasn’t good enough news, Webb’s scientists concluded that there was enough finite fuel on board to help launch the mission within 20 years. (The telescope used less fuel than planned to reach its outpost about 1 million miles from Earth.) NASA originally hoped the instrument would last five years, and the agency was initially pleased to learn it would operate on sufficient fuel for more than 10 years. 10 years.

With the Webb Telescope at its peak, astronomers plan to:

  • Take a look at stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. “We will see the very first stars and galaxies ever formed,” Jean Creighton, astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Mashable last year.

  • See the cosmos in infrared light, which allows us to see much more of the universe. Infrared light has longer wavelengths than visible light, so light waves penetrate cosmic clouds more efficiently; light does not often collide with and be scattered by these densely packed particles. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can go where the legendary Hubble Space Telescope can’t.

  • Look into distant exoplanets: Webb telescope carries specialized equipment called spectrometersthat will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The tools can decipher which molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide and methane) exist in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, whether they be gas giants or small rocky worlds. Webb will study exoplanets in the Milky Way galaxy. Who knows what we’ll find?

How serious is the damage to Webb?

As you read above, the telescope as a whole is in excellent shape.

Over the course of six months, scientists prepared the $10 billion telescope for its long-awaited science operations, the researchers found six micrometeoroid impacts. Indeed, they expected about one hit each month. “Any spacecraft will inevitably encounter micrometeoroids,” the report notes. Of the six hits, five had little effect.

But the impact, which occurred between May 22 and 24, was strong enough to cause, as noted above, a “significant irreversible change” in one of the 18 segments of Webb’s hexagonal mirror (segment C3). Fortunately, the observatory’s mirror, which collects faint light from very distant space, is quite large, over 21 feet in diameter. This means that most of the telescope was not affected.

The image to the right shows a bright area (lower right of the mirror) where a micrometeoroid hit the Webb telescope, eventually changing the surface of the mirror.
Credit & Copyright: NASA/ESA/CSA

“However, the effect was small at full telescope level because only a small fraction of the telescope area was affected,” Webb scientists wrote.

What’s more, since the strike, Webb engineers have been working on small adjustments to the mirror alignment, which has limited any small image errors. (Such errors are to be expected, since the telescope drifts slightly in space.) “Webb’s ability to detect and adjust the positions of the mirrors allows for partial correction of impacts,” NASA previously noted. “By adjusting the position of the affected segment, engineers can compensate for some of the distortion.”

What are the risks of future impacts on the telescope?

Only time will tell if this collision was rare, or if it could be more common than Webb’s scientists thought.

“It is not yet clear whether the C3 segment hit in May 2022 was a rare event (i.e., an unfortunate early impact of a high kinetic energy micrometeoroid that statistically could only happen once every few years), or whether the telescope may be more susceptible to damage from micrometeoroids than predicted by pre-launch simulations,” the report says.

If Webb is found to be at a higher risk of damage, NASA and its Webb partners may consider minimizing the time the telescope is looking in a direction where there are more micrometeoroids flying in space, or pointing the telescope away during certain meteor showers.

For now, however, the telescope is set to succeed.

“With its revolutionary capabilities, JWST has ushered in the first of many years of scientific discovery,” the report concludes.

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