When the James Webb Space Telescope released five stunning images of the universe earlier this month, it brought decades of accurate engineering and astronomical work to its head. When these images were revealed last week, the build-up was so intense that NASA Administrator Bill Nelson compared the scene to a pep rally instead of a supposedly stable scientific collection.
Nevertheless, that pepper may have disappeared since last week in light of the latest news that the telescope, despite its enormous technological sophistication, has suffered irreparable damage due to a micrometeoroid.
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According to a report published in the pre-print database arXiv.org, a small rock collided with one of the telescope’s 18 gold-plated mirrors, causing significant damage in the process. More specifically, the C3 mirror has a bright white bulk where there should be gold at the place where the micrometeoroid hit. Although NASA describes the damage as “uncorrectable”, they added that it has not impaired the overall performance of the telescope.
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“The micrometeoroid that hit segment C3 in the period 22–24 May 2022 UT caused a significant uncorrectable change in the total number for that segment,” the report explains. “But the effect was small at full telescope level because only a small part of the telescope area was affected.” The report explains that “two consecutive readjustments” helped to correct the problem.
Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, Assistant Administrator at NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, warned of the agency’s ability to go beyond this setback when he tweeted in June on early reports of micrometeoroid impact on the telescope.
“Micrometeoroid attacks are an unavoidable aspect of operating in space,” Zurbuchen wrote. “Recently, Webb [telescope] maintained a shock against one primary mirror segment. After initial assessments, the team found that the telescope still performs at a level that exceeds all assignment requirements. “
The new arXiv.org report goes on to explain that the small pebble that hit the C3 mirror was actually just one of 19 that crashed into the James Webb Space Telescope between February and May 2022.
The James Webb Space Telescope is particularly vulnerable to micrometeroid attack because the telescope’s mirrors are open and exposed to the vacuum of space. The Hubble Space Telescope, for all in the world the technological predecessor of Webb, had a cylindrical housing in which the observation technology was housed. In contrast, the Webb telescope is functionally a giant reflector that is open to space without a protective sheath.
But aside from being smaller overall, the other reason Hubble has been remarkably free of damage over the years is due to its location in space. Hubble orbits comfortably just above the earth, close enough for astronauts from the space shuttle to approach and perform maintenance; while the Webb telescope is far away in a stable point in space where the sun and the earth’s gravity perfectly balance each other, so that the telescope effectively stays still in relation to the earth. But because there have been few spacecraft sent to this point in space – known as L2 point, abbreviation for LaGrange Point – astronomers have less knowledge about the micrometeoroid risk in the region. On the other hand, low to medium Earth orbit, where Hubble lives, is saturated with human spacecraft, and thus the risks are well studied.
The Space news site Space.com had a depressing view of the otherwise optimistic tone of NASA’s new report.
“Micrometeroids are a known hazard for space operations, and meeting them is by no means new to scientists; the International Space Station and the Hubble Space Telescope are among long-standing programs that remain operational despite occasional space rocket attacks,” Space.com wrote. “But Web’s orbit at Lagrange Point 2 about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) away from Earth could change the risk profile considerably.”
Despite the setback with the C3 mirror, the James Webb Space Telescope has remained an undeniable success so far. In one of the recently released images, the telescope determined the composition of the atmosphere of a distant planet called WASP-96b (which contained water). Other released images showed a planetary nebula called the Southern Ring Nebula; five nearly adjacent galaxies aptly named “Stephan’s Quintet”; The Carina Nebula, which looks to the whole world like a horsehair blanket drawn over a bright and colorful sky full of stars; and the mildly named SMACS 0723 – which is the clearest and fullest infrared image ever produced by the distant universe.