The James Webb Telescope, which was recently used to capture those stunning pictures of the universe, has sustained “significant uncorrectable damage” from a micrometeoroid strike NASA says.
The Webb telescope uses a gigantic gold-plated mirror to capture images of space that would previously have been too dark to develop. The 21-foot-tall flower-shaped mirror is comprised of 18 separate segments that can be individually adjusted. In May, one of these segments was struck by a micrometeoroid.
Micrometeoroids are fragments of asteroids that are usually smaller than a grain of sand, and of course the $10 million spacecraft was built in anticipation of their existence. Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explained. It was known Webb would have to survive the harsh environment of space, dealing with various kinds of pressure, radiation, and micrometeoroids. This isn’t the first time the Webb telescope has been struck, either. At least six micrometeoroids have impacted the satellite since its December launch, equal to roughly one impact per month, matching expectations.
This last impact was larger than expected. NASA was able to realign Webb’s segments to adjust for the micrometeoroid’s damage, but now engineers are faced with an important question. Was this impact rare, meaning it could happen once every few years, or is Webb “more susceptible to damage by micrometeoroids than pre-launch modeling predicted?”
If the size of the meteoroid was rare, then the satellite could be in flight for another 20 years, depending on fuel usage. If not, NASA could be faced with a much larger problem moving forward. We can only hope that the investigation proves helpful and that we can continue to witness the majesty of space for as long as possible.