NASA has reported that a meteoroid impact on the James Webb Space Telescope has caused “significantly irreparable” damage to one of the panels it uses to stare into space.
The orbiting observatory was launched in December last year and recently released a complete set of new observationsincluding what is said to be the “deepest” and most detailed image of the cosmos to date.
Like any spacecraft, it has encountered micrometeoroids and the sensors have detected six deformations on the telescope’s primary mirror panels that have been attributed to strikes.
“Each micrometeoroid caused degradation in the wavefront of the affected mirror segment, measured during normal wavefront sensing,” said NASA.
Some of these deteriorations can be corrected by adjusting the calculation that NASA uses on the data that each panel collects, according to a commissioned document published last week.
But one blow – which occurred between 22 and 24 May – was caused by a larger micrometeoroid and resulted in a “significant uncorrectable change” to segment C3 according to the document.
Fortunately, this change does not have much effect on how the telescope as a whole works – and NASA has said that performance continues to exceed expectations – but it fundamentally reduces the accuracy of the data collected.
However, the strike has raised some concerns about the impact future strikes of these major micrometeoroids may have.
“It is not yet clear whether the meeting in May 2022 to segment C3 was a rare event,” the document states.
There may be a chance that it was “an unfortunate early attack by a high kinetic energy micrometeoroid that could statistically occur only once in several years,” the NASA team assessed.
But potentially “the telescope may be more prone to micrometeoroid damage than pre-launch modeling prediction”.
“The project team is conducting further studies of the micrometeoroid population [and] how influences affect beryllium levels, “it added.
Another potential method of mitigating strikes may involve minimizing the time JWST spent “looking in the direction of orbital motion, which statistically has higher micrometeoroid velocities and energies”.
An increasing amount of orbital debris has regularly forced the International Space Station’s controllers to do so perform “avoidance maneuvers” to prevent it from being hit.
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NASA currently tracks more than 27,000 pieces of space debris, although it says there is much more debris – which is too little to be traced, but still large enough to threaten human spaceflight as well as robot missions.
NASA said: “There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger (up to 0.4 inches or 1 cm), and about 100 million pieces of debris about 0.04 inches (or 1 mm) and larger.”
“There are even more, smaller micrometers (0.000039 of an inch in diameter) debris,” it added, and all of them could pose a risk.
“Even small paint stains can damage a spacecraft” when traveling at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, NASA said – fast enough to travel from London to New York in 12 minutes.