Even if the first images captured by NASA’s James Webb space telescope — the world’s largest and most powerful of its kind — have stunned the world, scientists say the device suffered permanent damage from a series of asteroid strikes in May.
According to a newly published paper, a group of scientists said that after outlining the James Webb’s performance during the commissioning phase, the telescope reported problems that “cannot be corrected.” They added that the telescope also had a “minor effect that was not yet measurable.”
“Right now, the long-term effects of micrometeoroid impacts that slowly degrade the primary mirror are the biggest source of uncertainty,” the scientists said in the report.
On May 22, the main mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope was struck by six micrometeorites. Of these, the sixth strike dealt significant damage. It wasn’t initially thought to be too big, but now scientists’ new paper suggests it could be more serious than thought.
The impact “exceeded pre-launch expectations of damage for a single micrometeoroid prompting further investigation and modeling,” the report said.
Also read | Explained: How James Webb Telescope Images Are Changing Understanding the Universe
While the damage didn’t compromise the resolution of the space telescope’s primary mirror, engineers who designed the Webb believe the mirrors and sunshade will inevitably slowly deteriorate from micrometeoroid impacts, the paper said.
One possible solution could be to minimize the time spent looking in the direction of orbital motion that has statistically higher micrometeoroid velocities and energies, the paper said.
In June, after the asteroid strike, NASA released a statement saying that the Webb mirror “was designed to withstand bombardments from the micrometeoroid environment in its orbit around Sun-Earth L2 of dust particles flying at extreme speeds” .
“While the telescope was being built, engineers used a combination of simulations and actual test impacts on mirror samples to get a clearer idea of how the observatory could be boosted for use in orbit. This most recent impact was bigger than it was before.” modeled, and beyond what the team could have tested on the ground,” NASA said.
The James Webb Space Telescope was built by NASA in conjunction with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) at a cost of $10 billion.
Webb, made up of one of the largest mirrors on a space telescope, was launched on December 25, 2021 and has been orbiting the L2 point since February — nearly a million miles or 1.6 million kilometers from Earth.