(NEXSTAR) — A micrometeoroid caused “significant irreparable damage” to NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Telescope, a new report explains. While experts say the impact was small, it has prompted further investigation.
At 21 feet, Webb’s gilded, flower-shaped mirror is the largest and most sensitive ever sent into space. It consists of 18 segments, one of which was hit by the larger-than-expected micrometeoroid in May. Micrometeoroids are fragments of asteroids that are usually smaller than a grain of sand, according to NASA.
Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained at the time that Webb was known to survive the harsh environment of space, including micrometeoroids.
In a newly released report, Webb’s commissioning team said that while the mirrors and sunshades on the telescope are “expected to deteriorate slowly from micrometeoroid impact,” the impact on a specific segment known as C3, “the prelaunch expectations of damage for a single micrometeoroid.”
Despite this, Webb’s team determined that the overall impact on the telescope is small. Engineers were able to realign Webb’s segments to adjust the micrometeoroid’s damage.
Webb has been hit by at least six micrometeoroids since its launch in December, equivalent to about one impact per month, according to their report. However, the damage to C3 has had engineers investigate whether the impact was rare, meaning it could happen once every few years, or whether Webb is “more susceptible to damage from micrometeoroids than pre-launch modeling predicted.”
They are now investigating how other micrometeoroids might affect Webb’s mirrors, how many of these asteroid fragments there are, and whether the telescope needs to be tuned to spend less time pointing in the direction of orbital motion, where it can see a larger scale. at risk of being hit by a micrometeoroid.
Depending on the telescope’s fuel economy and expected degradation, Webb could survive for more than 20 years, according to engineers. It was launched into space from French Guiana in South America in December, reaching its vantage point 1 million miles from Earth in January. Then began the lengthy process of aligning the mirrors, getting the infrared detectors cold enough to work, and calibrating the scientific instruments, all protected by a tennis court-sized sunshade that keeps the telescope cool.
Webb’s first images, which gave us the deepest insight into both time and distance we’ve ever seen, were released last week. With one exception, the latest images showed parts of the universe seen by other telescopes. But Webb’s sheer power, Earth’s distant location and use of the infrared light spectrum showed them in new light.
The plan is to use the telescope to look so far back that scientists can glimpse the early days of the universe about 13.7 billion years ago and zoom in on closer cosmic objects, even our own solar system, with sharper focus.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.