By: April Carson
The James Webb Space Telescope's new home may not be as lonely as it appears, even if it is alone. The massive telescope, which is the size of a tennis court and has a price tag of $9.66 billion, was hit by a tiny space rock, officials said Tuesday.
"The impact created a small divot on one of the science instrument's carbon fiber sun shields," NASA said in a statement. "This is not expected to have any impact on mission operations."
A little piece of rock, a micrometeorite, has collided with one of Webb's mirror segments, filling the pocket of space occupied by the instrument with debris.
There is no need to be concerned. The engineers who designed the telescope were well aware of the space's challenges, and Webb has been constructed to withstand them.
"We always knew that Webb would have to survive in space, which includes harsh UV light and charged particles from the sun, extragalactic cosmic rays from unusual origins in the galaxy, and rare impacts by micrometeoroids within our Solar System," explains Goddard technical deputy project manager Paul Geithner.
"So the team developed a number of strategies and technologies to mitigate these potential risks."
The pocket that was hit is known as a "debris protection system". It is designed to stop any impacts from harming the telescope's optics.
The debris protection system consists of two layers of material: an outer layer of woven Kevlar, which is tough and abrasion-resistant, and an inner layer of softer silicone. The Kevlar is there to deflect high-speed particles, while the silicone helps to dissipate the energy from slower moving particles.
Webb, for example, was created with performance margin in mind – optical, thermal, electrical, and mechanical – to ensure that it can conduct its ambitious science goal even after many years in space.
Webb is located 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, or just under 1 million miles, in the L2 region. It's a Lagrange or Lagrangian point where the gravitational pull of two orbiting bodies (in this case, Earth and the Sun) balances with the centripetal force of the orbit to create a stable pocket where low-mass objects can be parked to save fuel.
In the same way that a fire's heat warms up a room, Lagrangian points are heated by the Sun and other stars. Jupiter, for example, has swarms of asteroids in two of its Lagrange points that it shares with the sun. Other planets also have asteroids in their Lagrange points, albeit in somewhat lesser numbers than Jupiter.
It's difficult to tell how much dust L2 has accumulated, but it would be silly to think the area had not gathered any.
Webb's design was developed to resist dust-sized particles traveling at incredibly high velocities, therefore it was specifically engineered to withstand bombardment.
The designers conducted tests on mirror samples to determine the effects of space weather and attempt to compensate for them, as well as simulations.
Mirror segments may be moved, but the telescope has sensors to determine its mirror positions and the capacity to adjust them if needed.
The astronauts will also operate the Webb Telescope's control room, known as Mission Control. Anything that happens in space can be controlled from here on Earth by sending adjustments to Webb. Its lenses may even be directed away from known meteor showers in advance.
Webb was designed with large margins of error in mind, so that the natural deterioration that will occur over time will not jeopardize the mission.
After a servicing mission, the Hubble panels that were damaged by orbital debris impact were recovered and returned to Earth.
It's more likely to be in a better position than Hubble, which has been subjected not just to micrometeorite impacts, but also to a continual barrage of space debris in low-Earth orbit.
The distance to Webb, on the other hand, prevents technicians from being able to physically visit and repair it. (Not that Hubble has been maintained recently; the last such mission was in 2009, and there will be no more.)
A random event struck the telescope sometime between 23 and 25 May, resulting in a micrometeoroid. The impact was greater than anticipated, implying it presents an opportunity to learn more about L2 and develop strategies for protecting the equipment in the future.
"We expected that Webb's mirrors would be exposed to space for a long period of time, and so we anticipated that light-pressure deflection caused by micrometeorite collisions would gracefully degrade instrument function over time," says Lee Feinberg of NASA Goddard, the element manager for Webb's optical telescope component.
We've had four earlier, more minor measurable micrometeoroid impacts that were in line with expectations, and this one most recently that is bigger than our degradation calculations predicted.
"We will utilize this data to improve our analysis of performance over time and also devise operational methods to guarantee that Webb's imaging capability is fully utilized for many years ahead," they added.
While the impact won't affect Webb's launch date, it does underscore how sensitive the telescope is. Designed to peer back at the early universe and study the formation of stars and galaxies, Webb is loaded with state-of-the-art optics and instruments. Even a tiny speck of space debris could potentially damage those components beyond repair.
This study was published in the journal Nature Astronomy.
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About the Blogger:
April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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