NASA says a small space rock affected the James Webb Space Telescope

In its new home far from Earth, the James Webb Space Telescope may not be as lonely as it seems.

The space occupied by the telescope is not a complete vacuum – now the inevitable has happened, a small rock, a small meteor, has struck part of the Webb mirror.

But don’t panic. The engineers who built the telescope were aware of the harshness of space, and Webb was carefully engineered to withstand it.

“We’ve always known that Webb has to deal with the space environment, which includes intense ultraviolet light and charged particles from the sun, cosmic rays from extraterrestrial sources in the Milky Way, and unexpected impacts of tiny meteors in our solar system,” he said. NASA Go said Paul Geithner, engineer and deputy manager of technical programs at the Dade Space Flight Center.

“We designed and built Webb’s performance margins — optical, thermal, electrical, mechanical — to ensure that it can fulfill its ambitious scientific missions even after many years in space.”

Website in L2. (NASA)

Webb occupies an area of ​​Earth of 1.5 million kilometers (just under 1 million miles) called L2.

This is known as a Lagrangian point or Lagrangian point, and the gravitational interaction between two circular objects (the Earth and the Sun in this case) balances the centripetal force of the orbits to form a fixed pocket , where small mass objects can be placed “off”. ” to reduce fuel consumption.

This is great for science, but these areas can also collect other things.

Jupiter’s asteroid population, for example, shares its orbit at the two Lagrangian points it shares with the sun. Other planets also have asteroids at Lagrangian points, although fewer than Jupiter.

It’s unclear exactly how much dust the L2 collected, but it would be foolish to expect none of the dust to be collected in this area.

Therefore, Webb is specifically designed to withstand the bombardment of dust-sized particles traveling at extremely high speeds. Webb’s project not only included simulations, but engineers tested the effects of mirror samples to understand the effects of the space environment and try to mitigate them.

This effect moves part of the mirror, but the telescope has sensors to measure the mirror’s position and the ability to adjust them to help correct any distortions that may be caused.

Mission Control on Earth could also send mods to Webb to put the mirrors where they should be. It can even move forward far away from known optical meteor showers.

And Webb was built with a wide margin of error, so the expected physical deterioration over time wouldn’t end the job prematurely.

Damage to the Hubble Plate from orbital debris returning to Earth after a mission. (NASA)

It may be in a better position than Hubble, which is in low-Earth orbit not only hit by small meteors, but also constantly bombarded by space debris.

Unlike Hubble, the distance from Webb means that technicians won’t be able to visit the site to make repairs. (Not that Hubble has done any maintenance recently; the last such mission was in 2009, and it won’t be done again.)

Sometime between May 23 and 25, the micrometeorites that hit the telescope were random events. However, the impact was larger than expected, meaning it provided an opportunity to better understand the L2 environment and try to find strategies to protect the telescope in the future.

“As Webb’s mirrors are exposed to space, we predict that unexpected micrometeorite collisions will degrade the telescope’s performance over time,” Element Optical Telescope director Webb Lee Feinberg told NASA Godard.

“Since launch, we have had four small, measurable micrometeorite impacts that fit our predictions, and these impacts have recently been larger than our hypothetical degradation predictions.

“Over time, we will use this flight data to update our performance analysis and develop operational methods to ensure Webb’s imaging performance is maximized for many years to come.”

Webb’s first color spectral image is still scheduled to arrive on time on July 12, 2022. We can’t wait.

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