(NEXSTAR) – A micrometeoroid caused “significant irreparable damage” to NASA’s $ 10 billion James Webb telescope, a new report explains. Although experts say the impact was small, it has led to further investigation.
At 21 feet, Webb’s gold-plated, flower-shaped mirrors are the largest and most sensitive ever sent into space. It consists of 18 segments, one of which was beaten by the larger than expected micrometeoroid in May. Micrometeoroids are fragments of asteroids that are usually smaller than a grain of sand, according to NASA.
At the time, Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained that it was known that Webb had to survive the harsh environment in space, including micrometeoroids.
In a recent report, Webb’s commissioning team said that although the mirrors and sunshades on the telescope “are expected to slowly degrade from micrometeoroid impacts”, the impact of a specific segment known as C3 exceeded “the expectations of damage to a single micrometeoroid.”
Despite this, Webb’s team has determined that the total impact on the telescope is small. Engineers were able to adjust Web segments to adjust for micrometeoroid damage.
Webb has been hit by at least six micrometeoroids since its launch in December, which equates to about one drop per month, which is in line with expectations, according to their report. However, the damage to C3 has prompted engineers to investigate whether the impact was rare, meaning it could occur once every couple of years, or whether Webb is “more prone to damage from micrometeoroids than predicted before launch modeling.”
They are now working to find out how other micrometeoroids can affect Web’s mirrors, how many of these asteroid fragments there are, and whether the telescope should be adjusted to spend less time pointing at orbital motion, where it may be more likely to be hit. of a micrometeoroid.
Depending on fuel consumption and expected degradation of the telescope, Webb could survive for more than 20 years, according to engineers. It was launched into space in December from French Guiana in South America and reached its vantage point 1 million miles from Earth in January. Then began the lengthy process of adjusting the mirrors, getting the infrared detectors cold enough to operate and calibrating the scientific instruments, all protected by a sunshade the size of a tennis court that keeps the telescope cool.
Web’s first images, which gave us the deepest insight into both time and distance we’ve ever seen, were released last week. With one exception, recent images showed parts of the universe seen by other telescopes. But Web’s sheer power, remote location outside the Earth, and the use of the infrared light spectrum showed them in a new light.
The plan is to use the telescope to look so far back that scientists will get a glimpse of the universe’s early days about 13.7 billion years ago and zoom in on closer cosmic objects, even our own solar system, with a sharper focus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.