NASA has reported that a meteoroid impact on the James Webb Space Telescope has caused “significant irreparable” damage to one of the panels it uses to stare into deep space.
The orbiting observatory was launched last December and recently released a full set of new sightingsincluding what is said to be the “deepest” and most detailed view of the cosmos to date.
Like any spacecraft, it has encountered micrometeoroids and its sensors have detected six deformations on the telescope’s primary mirror panels that have been attributed to strikes.
“Each micrometeoroid caused degradation in the wavefront of the affected mirror segment, as measured during regular wavefront detection,” said NASA.
Some of these degradations can be corrected by adjusting the math NASA applies to the data each panel collects, according to a mission paper published last week.
However, one attack — which occurred between May 22 and 24 — was caused by a larger micrometeoroid and resulted in a “significant uncorrectable change” in segment C3, according to the document.
Fortunately, this change doesn’t really impact how the telescope functions as a whole — and NASA has said its performance continues to exceed expectations — but it fundamentally reduces the accuracy of the data collected.
However, the strike has raised some concerns about the impact future attacks from these larger micrometeoroids could have.
“It is not yet clear whether the May 2022 hit in segment C3 was a rare event,” the document said.
There could be a chance it was “an unfortunate early attack by a high kinetic energy micrometeoroid that statistically could only occur once every few years,” the NASA team considered.
But possibly “the telescope may be more susceptible to damage from micrometeoroids than predicted before launch”.
“The project team is conducting additional research on the micrometeoroid population [and] how impact affects beryllium levels,” it added.
Another possible method to reduce the attacks could be to minimize the amount of time the JWST spent “looking in the direction of orbital motion, which statistically has higher micrometeoroid velocities and energies”.
A growing amount of orbital debris has regularly forced International Space Station controllers to: perform “avoidance maneuvers” to avoid hitting it.
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NASA is currently tracking more than 27,000 pieces of space debris, though it says there’s a lot more debris — that’s too small to be tracked, but still big enough to threaten both human spaceflight and robotic missions.
NASA said, “There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger (up to 0.4 inches or 1 cm), and about 100 million pieces of debris about 0.04 inches (or 1 mm) and larger.”
“There’s even more, smaller micrometer-sized (0.00039 inches in diameter) debris out there,” it added, and all of them could pose a risk.
“Even tiny paint spots can damage a spacecraft” at speeds of up to 17,500 mph, NASA said — fast enough to get from London to New York in 12 minutes.