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Jul 3
2022

Webb Telescope On Track After Micrometeoroid Hit

Editorial Staff
Jun 9, 2022
Image: NASA via Unsplash.

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope continues to perform despite impact from a micrometeoroid, according to a statement from NASA.

The telescope sustained an impact to one of its primary mirror segments between May 23-25. NASA found the instrument performing above all mission requirements despite a marginally detectable effect in the data, according to the statement.

“We always knew that Webb would have to weather the space environment, which includes harsh ultraviolet light and charged particles from the Sun, cosmic rays from exotic sources in the galaxy, and occasional strikes by micrometeoroids within our solar system,” said Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “We designed and built Webb with performance margin – optical, thermal, electrical, mechanical – to ensure it can perform its ambitious science mission even after many years in space.”

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, a partnership with ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), is in place nearly 1 million miles from earth. The group still plans to release its first full-color images and spectroscopic data on July 12. The telescope has been going through a six-month period of preparation before it can begin science work, calibrating its instruments to its space environment and aligning its mirrors.

Micrometeoroids, dust sized particles flying at extreme velocities, are an unavoidable aspect of operating any spacecraft, which routinely sustain many impacts over the course of long and productive science missions in space. Impacts will continue to occur throughout the entirety of Webb’s lifetime in space; such events were anticipated when building and testing the mirror on the ground.

Engineers used a mixture of simulations and actual test impacts on mirror samples during construction to get a clearer idea of how to fortify the observatory for operation in orbit. This most recent impact was larger than was modeled, and beyond what the team could have tested on the ground.

Webb’s capability to sense and adjust mirror positions enables partial correction for the result of impacts. By adjusting the position of the affected segment, engineers can cancel out a portion of the distortion. This minimizes the effect of any impact, although not all of the degradation can be cancelled out this way.

Engineers have already performed a first such adjustment for the recently affected segment C3, and additional planned mirror adjustments will continue to fine tune this correction. These steps will be repeated when needed in response to future events as part of the monitoring and maintenance of the telescope throughout the mission.

To protect Webb in orbit, flight teams can use protective maneuvers that intentionally turn the optics away from known meteor showers before they are set to occur. This most recent hit was not a result of a meteor shower and is currently considered an unavoidable chance event. 

As a result of this impact, a specialized team of engineers has been formed to look at ways to mitigate the effects of further micrometeoroid hits of this scale.

“With Webb’s mirrors exposed to space, we expected that occasional micrometeoroid impacts would gracefully degrade telescope performance over time,” said Lee Feinberg, Webb optical telescope element manager at NASA Goddard. “Since launch, we have had four smaller measurable micrometeoroid strikes that were consistent with expectations and this one more recently that is larger than our degradation predictions assumed. We will use this flight data to update our analysis of performance over time and also develop operational approaches to assure we maximize the imaging performance of Webb to the best extent possible for many years to come.”

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