(NEXSTAR) — A micrometeoroid caused “significant uncorrectable 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 gold-plated, flower-shaped mirror is the biggest and most sensitive ever sent into space. It’s comprised of 18 segments, one of which was smacked by the bigger than anticipated micrometeoroid in May. Micrometeoroids are fragments of asteroids that are usually smaller than a grain of sand, according to NASA.
At the time, Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center explained it was known that Webb would have to survive the harsh environment of space, including micrometeoroids.
In a newly released report, Webb’s commissioning team said that while the mirrors and sunshields on the telescope are “expected to slowly degrade from micrometeoroid impacts,” the impact to one specific segment, known as C3, “exceeded prelaunch expectations of damage for a single micrometeoroid.”
Despite this, Webb’s team has determined the overall impact on the telescope is small. Engineers were able to realign Webb’s segments to adjust for the micrometeoroid’s damage.
Webb has been hit by at least six micrometeoroids since its December launch, equal to roughly one impact per month, matching expectations, according to their report. The damage to C3, however, has engineers investigating whether the impact was rare, meaning it could happen once every few years, or if Webb is “more susceptible to damage by micrometeoroids than pre-launch modeling predicted.”
They are now working to determine how other micrometeoroids could impact Webb’s mirrors, how many of these asteroid fragments there are, and whether the telescope should be adjusted to spend less time pointing toward orbital motion, where it may be at greater risk of being struck by a micrometeoroid.
Depending on its fuel usage, and expected degradation to the telescope, Webb could survive for more than 20 years, according to engineers. It launched into space in December from French Guiana in South America and reached its lookout point 1 million miles from Earth in January. Then the lengthy process began to align the mirrors, get the infrared detectors cold enough to operate and calibrate the science instruments, all protected by a sunshade the size of a tennis court that keeps the telescope cool.
Webb’s first images, which gave us the deepest view into both time and distance that 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, distant location off Earth and use of the infrared light spectrum showed them in new light.
The plan is to use the telescope to peer back so far that scientists will get a glimpse of 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.