Yes, a small rocky particle collided with the Webb Telescope. No, the mission is not nearly doomed.
You may have read misleading headlines that the James Webb Space Telescope – the most powerful observatory ever built – has caused some permanent damage. This is an excerpt from a new 55-page report describing the instrument’s excellent scientific performance over the past six months, as engineers prepared and tested its unprecedented cosmic viewing capabilities.
The Webb telescope is, in general, in good condition. Here’s what you should know about the state of the observatory that will revolutionize our understanding of the universe.
The first stunning cosmic images of the James Webb Telescope are here
What did scientists conclude about the state of the Webb telescope?
NASA and its collaborating partners, the Canadian Space Agency and the European Space Agency, concluded that Webb—even after an accelerating micrometeorite (a small rocky particle often the size of dust)—had collided and caused a “significant, irreversible change” in one of the 18 telescopes. Gold-plated hexagonal mirrors – “Fully capable of making the discoveries they were built for.”
Crucially, they expect that Webb Above expectations. “Moreover, in almost all areas, the scientific performance of JWST is better than expected,” Webb scientists wrote.
“JWST’s scientific performance is better than expected.”
Why is the web expected to exceed achievement? Its mirrors are cleaner than what is required to achieve its lofty scientific goals. Its guidance system, which locks in and tracks targets, is better than expected. And the overall performance in displaying things clearly is better than the requirements.
And if that’s not good enough news, the Webb scientists have concluded that it has limited fuel on board to help power the mission for 20 years. (The telescope used less fuel than planned in order to get to its position about a million miles from Earth.) Originally, NASA hoped the instrument would last five years, and the agency was initially pleased to learn that it would run with enough fuel for more than 10 years. .
With the Webb Telescope in peak performance, astronomers plan to:
Look at the stars and galaxies that formed over 13 billion years ago, only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. “We’ll see the first stars and galaxies that ever formed,” Jan Creighton, astronomer and planetarium director Manfred Olson at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, told Mashable last year.
Look at the universe in infrared light, which allows us to see more of the universe. Infrared has longer wavelengths than visible light, so light waves glide more efficiently through cosmic clouds; Light often does not collide with these dense particles and is scattered. Ultimately, Webb’s infrared sight can penetrate places the legendary Hubble Space Telescope cannot.
Analog to distant exoplanets: web telescope Carry specialized equipment called spectrometers, will revolutionize our understanding of these distant worlds. The instruments can decipher the molecules (such as water, carbon dioxide, and methane) found in the atmospheres of distant exoplanets — whether they are gas giants or smaller rocky worlds. Webb will search the exoplanets in the Milky Way. Who knows what we will find?
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How bad is Webb?
As you read above, the telescope is generally in good shape.
Over the past six months, scientists have prepared the $10 billion telescope for its long-awaited scientific operation, researchers have discovered six impacts from micro-meteorites. In fact, they expected one infection each month. The report pointed out that “any spacecraft will inevitably encounter micro-meteorites.” Of the six strikes, five had minimal effects.
But the impact that occurred between May 22 and 24 was strong enough to cause, as mentioned above, a “significant irreversible change” in one of Webb’s 18 hexagonal mirror segments (part C3). Fortunately, the observatory’s mirror – which collects the faint light from the very distant universe – is very large at over 21 feet. This means that most of the telescope is unaffected.
The image on the right shows an optical region (bottom right of the mirror) where the micrometer hits the Webb telescope, eventually changing the surface of the mirror.
“However, the effect was negligible at the whole telescope level because only a small portion of the telescope area was affected,” Webb scientists wrote.
Furthermore, after the hit, Webb’s engineers worked to make minor adjustments to the mirror’s alignment, which limited any small errors in the shooting. (Such errors are expected because the telescope drifts slightly in space.) “Webb’s ability to sense and adjust mirror positions enables partial correction of the outcome of the collisions,” NASA previously noted. “By adjusting the position of the affected clip, engineers can cancel out part of the distortion.”
What are the risks posed by the future effects of the telescope?
Only time will tell if this effect is rare, or if it may be more common than Webb scientists have estimated.
“It is not yet clear whether the May 2022 strike of C3 is a rare event (i.e. an unlucky early strike by a high-energy micrometeorite that may occur statistically only once every several years), or whether the telescope is more vulnerable to injury,” the report concluded. The damage caused by micrometeorites is greater than previous launch modeling had predicted.
If Webb turns out to be at greater risk of damage, NASA and its Webb partners could consider reducing the amount of time the telescope couples in directions where there are more micrometeorites flying through space, or pointing the telescope away during certain meteor showers.
But for now, the telescope is poised for success.
The report concluded, “With revolutionary capabilities, JWST began the first of many years of scientific discovery.”
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