A micrometeor has just smashed into the Webb Space Telescope – it wasn’t the first

The best placed Plans of mice and men aft, as poet Robert Burns wrote in his 1785 play To A Mouse — and the team behind the James Webb Space Telescope are not immune to that truism.

Despite positioning Webb at a relatively clean area of ​​space called Lagrange point 2, a few million miles from Earth and the myriad space debris that surrounds us, the telescope was hit head-on. In this case, a micrometeor slammed into one of the telescope’s main mirror segments, one of the 18 gold- and beryllium-coated hexagons that will allow us to observe the Universe like never before. NASA revealed the damage on Wednesday, June 8th in a press release, although it appears that the event actually took place sometime between May 23rd and 25th.

What happened – Sometime between Tuesday May 23 and Thursday May 25, the James Webb Space Telescope’s C3 primary mirror segment suffered a micrometeor impact. A micrometeor is a dust-sized particle that hurtles through space fast enough to be powerful enough to cause damage.

In response, Webb’s engineering team made an initial adjustment to the positioning and orientation of the mirror segment, NASA confirmed Wednesday. These adjustments allow teams on the ground to account for and compensate for image distortions that can result from damage to the mirrors – although it’s not a perfect solution.

As Vice versa As reported by a Webb-related media briefing back in January, the problem with being a million miles from Earth is that there’s no way to send a repair crew – so Webb is stuck with a partially damaged mirror segment:

“Let’s say a piece of debris hits it,” says Julie Van Campen, a NASA engineer and deputy director of commissioning of the James Webb Space Telescope. “And then we had such a problem that a mirror broke,” she continues. What protects the telescope from this eventuality?

“The answer is not much,” she says. “What you see is what you get.”

The Webb’s mirror segments can be seen in this early selfie.NASA

Why it matters – Webb’s team always knew the telescope would be damaged in space. Micrometeors are so tiny that tracking and avoiding them is nearly impossible. What matters, however, is that the Webb represents a feat of engineering, with the telescope built to withstand rips, tears and direct blows for the duration of its scientific mission, so it still offers unprecedented views of our cosmos. As a NASA scientist on the Webb team reveals on the Webb Blog, this is actually not the first micrometeor impact.

NASA explains in the blog:

With the telescope successfully launched, deployed and aligned, Webb’s early-life performance is still well beyond expectations and the observatory is fully capable of the scientific output it was designed for.

To go into detail – An intriguing detail of the recent impact is that the Webb had no idea this meteor was coming, despite undergoing rigorous impact simulation testing designed to help it spot and avoid these types of micrometeors. But oddly enough, this micrometeor was larger than the Webb team had anticipated during testing. NASA writes in the blog:

“While the telescope was being built, engineers used a mix of simulations and actual test impacts on mirror samples to get a clearer idea of ​​how to mount the observatory for on-orbit operations. This recent impact was larger than modeled and beyond what the team could have tested on site.”

“Since launch, we’ve had four smaller measurable micrometeoroid impacts that were in line with expectations, and this one that was more recently larger than our predictions of deterioration,” explains Lee Feinberg, Webb Optical Telescope Element Manager at NASA Goddard, in the same post .

“We will use this flight data to update our performance analysis over time and also develop operational approaches to ensure we maximize Webb’s imaging performance as best we can for many years to come.”

The Webb was housed in pristine condition before launch, but that won’t remain the case in space.NASA/Chris Gunn

What’s next – Soon, Webb’s team will proceed with the adjustment of the C3 mirror segment to try to minimize the degradation of the mirror’s optical performance.

“We designed and built Webb with a margin of performance – optical, thermal, electrical, mechanical – to ensure that it can continue to fulfill its ambitious scientific mission even after many years in space,” says Paul Geithner, engineering assistant project manager at Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement on NASA’s Webb blog.

Despite the damage, the James Webb Space Telescope is set to give the world a stunning view of our universe on July 12, 2022. This will likely come in the form of four or more images demonstrating the capabilities of its four instruments, as well as data and other observations that talk about how it will be used during its first year of operation to study exoplanets, galaxies, the first stars, our solar system, and more to investigate.

The impact won’t affect that schedule, according to NASA, so stay tuned for the first science images in July. We can’t wait.

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