Irreversible space rock damage won’t stop the Webb telescope from exceeding expectations

Yes, a tiny piece of rock hit the Webb telescope. No, the mission is far from doomed to failure.

You may have read misleading headlines emphasizing that the James Webb Space Telescope – the most powerful such observatory ever built – has sustained permanent damage. This is a raisin picnic from a new 55-page report describes the outstanding scientific performance of the instrument over the past six months as engineers prepared and tested it unparalleled cosmic viewing abilities.

Overall, the Webb telescope is in great shape. Here’s what you should know about the state of the observatory that will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos.

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The first stunning cosmic images from the James Webb Telescope are in

What did scientists conclude about the condition of the Webb telescope?

NASA and their collaborating partners, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, concluded that Webb — even after a speeding micrometeoroid (a small, often dust-sized piece of rock) hit and detected a “significant uncorrectable change” in one of the 18 gold pieces of the The telescope’s coated hexagonal mirrors are “fully capable of making the discoveries it was built for.”

Crucially, they expect from Webb exceed expectations. “Additionally, the scientific performance of JWST is almost consistently better than expected,” the Webb scientists wrote.

“JWST’s scientific performance is better than expected.”

Why is Webb expected to excel? His mirrors are cleaner than necessary to achieve his lofty scientific goals. its guidance system, set and pursue the goals, is better than required. And its overall performance see objects clearly is better than requirements.

And as if that wasn’t enough good news, Webb’s scientists have concluded that it has enough finite fuel on board to power the mission 20 years. (The telescope used less propellant than planned to Arrived at its outpost about 1 million miles from Earth.) Originally, NASA hoped the instrument would last five years, and the agency was initially pleased to learn that it would work with it sufficient propellant for over 10 years.

With the Webb telescope at peak power, astronomers plan to:

  • View stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. “We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies to ever form,” Jean Creighton, an astronomer and director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Mashable last year.

  • View the cosmos in infrared light, which allows us to see much more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths as visible light, allowing the light waves to glide through cosmic clouds more efficiently; Light does not collide with or scatter from these densely packed particles as often. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared vision can see places that the legendary Hubble Space Telescope cannot.

  • Peer into distant exoplanets: The Webb Telescope carries special equipment called spectrometers, which will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The instruments can decipher which molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide and methane) exist in the atmosphere of distant exoplanets – be they gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will study exoplanets in the Milky Way. Who knows what we’ll find?

How bad is the damage to Webb?

As you read above, the telescope is in great overall condition.

During the six months that scientists prepared the $10 billion telescope for its much-anticipated scientific operation, researchers discovered six micrometeoroid impacts. In fact, they expected about one hit every month. “Any spacecraft will inevitably encounter micrometeorites,” the report states. Of the six hits, five had negligible effects.

But the impact, which took place between May 22 and 24, was strong enough to cause, as noted above, a “significant uncorrectable change” in one of Webb’s 18 hexagonal mirror segments (segment C3). Luckily, the observatory’s mirror – which collects faint light from the extremely distant cosmos – is quite large, at over 21 feet across. This means that most of the telescope is unaffected.

Mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope

The image on the right shows a bright area (lower right of the mirror) where a micrometeroid struck the Webb telescope, ultimately altering the surface of the mirror.
Photo credit: NASA/ESA/CSA

“However, the effect at the full telescope plane was small because only a small portion of the telescope’s area was affected,” the Webb scientists wrote.

In addition, after the strike, Webb engineers worked to make minor adjustments to the alignment of the mirror, limiting small aberrations. (Such errors are to be expected as the telescope drifts a bit in space.) “Webb’s ability to capture and adjust mirror positions allows for a partial correction for impact outcome.” NASA has previously pointed this out. “By adjusting the position of the affected segment, engineers can remove some of the distortion.”

What are the risks of future impacts on the telescope?

Only time will tell if this impact was rare or if it’s occurring more frequently than Webb scientists estimated.

“It is not yet clear whether the May 2022 segment C3 impact was a rare event (ie an unfortunate early impact of a high kinetic energy micrometeoroid that statistically could only occur once in several years) or whether the telescope might be more vulnerable micrometeoroid damage than predicted by pre-launch modelling,” the report concluded.

If Webb is found to be at greater risk of damage, NASA and its Webb partners may consider minimizing the time the telescope is looking in directions where more micrometeoroids are flying through space, or the telescope while set aside at certain times meteor shower.

For now, however, the telescope is set for success.

“With revolutionary capabilities, JWST has begun the first of many years of scientific discovery,” the report concluded.

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