July 5, 2022

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NASA’s James Webb Telescope collides with a microwave

Mariella Moon

Astronomers everywhere have high hopes for NASA James Webb Telescope. It’s supposed to give us insight into the first stars and galaxies that ever formed and into the atmospheres of potentially habitable exoplanets. That’s why NASA and its partners are designed to be able to withstand extreme situations, like being bombarded by micrometric particles flying at extremely high speeds. Between May 23 and May 25, a smaller than expected small meteor collided with one of the telescope’s primary mirror segments. was the event big enough NASA to capture a “marginally detectable effect in the data,” but not enough to affect the telescope’s performance.

In the NASA announcement, it said the James Webb team performed an initial analysis and found that it was still operating at a level that “exceeds all mission requirements.” The space agency explained that its engineers relied on simulations and did actual test effects on the mirror samples when it was building the telescope to make sure it was adequately fortified. For example, telescope flight teams can perform maneuvers to divert its optics away from known meteor showers. The last impact it endured has been classified as an unavoidable chance event, even though the micrometeorite was larger than what engineers on Earth could have tested.

The good news is that James Webb has the ability to adjust mirror positions in order to correct and reduce the effects of such effects. Its engineers have already made the first of several modifications to compensate for the damage to the affected sector. The agency has also put together a team of engineers to look at ways to mitigate the impact of this range impact in the future. Given that James Webb is supposed to be Hubble’s replacement and is expected to provide us with invaluable data over the next 10 years – or 20, if all goes well – it is likely that NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency will do their best to protect space telescope.

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Lee Feinberg, Elements Manager for the Webb Optical Telescope at NASA Goddard said:

“With Webb’s mirror exposure to space, we expected that accidental micrometeorite collisions would gracefully degrade the telescope’s performance over time. Since launch, we’ve had four measurable micrometeorite hits that were in line with expectations, and this hit recently is larger than our predictions of degradation. Presumably. We will use this flight data to update our analysis of performance over time and also develop operational approaches to ensure that Webb’s imaging performance is maximized for many years to come.”

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