NASA reported that a meteor hitting the James Webb Space Telescope caused “significant irreparable” damage to one of the plates it uses to peer into deep space.
The orbiting observatory was launched last December and was recently released a complete set of new observationsincludes what is believed to be the “deepest” and most detailed photograph of the universe to date.
Like any spacecraft, it encountered micronuclei, and its sensors detected six distortions in the telescope’s main mirror attributed to the collisions.
“Each micrometeoroid causes wavefront attenuation of the impacted mirror segment, as measured during conventional wavefront sensing,” NASA.
Some of this degradation can be corrected by adjusting the math that NASA applies to the data each panel collects, according to an operational paper published last week.
However, one strike – which occurred between May 22 and 24 – was caused by a larger microthyroid and resulted in an “irreparable significant change” to the C3 segment according to the document. .
Fortunately, this change doesn’t particularly affect the telescope’s overall performance – and NASA has said its performance is continuing to exceed expectations – but it essentially reduces accuracy. of the data collected.
However, the strike has raised some concerns about the impact that future strikes of these larger microparticles could have.
“It remains unclear whether May 2022 will be a rare event,” the document said.
The NASA team considered it could be “an unlucky early strike by a highly kinetic asteroid that statistically can happen only once every few years”.
But it is possible that “the telescope may be more susceptible to damage by microfactors than predicted by the pre-launch model”.
“The project team is conducting additional investigations into the microthyroid population [and] It added.
Another potential method for minimizing strikes could involve minimizing the amount of time JWST spends “looking in the direction of orbital motion, which is statistically higher in micrometeoroid scale and energy. “.
More and more frequent orbital debris forces the controllers of the International Space Station to perform “avoidance maneuvers” to prevent it from being hit.
NASA is currently tracking more than 27,000 pieces of space junk, though it says there’s a lot more – too small to track, but still large enough to pose a threat to humans on spacecraft as well as to robotic missions.
“There are half a million pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger (up to 0.4 inches, or 1cm), and about 100 million pieces about 0.04 inches (or 1mm) in size,” NASA said. and bigger.”
“There are even smaller, micrometer-sized debris (0.000039 inches in diameter),” it added, and all of them can pose a risk.
“Even small paint stains can damage a spacecraft” when traveling at speeds of up to 17,500mph – fast enough to get from London to New York in 12 minutes, says NASA.