NASA reveals first image from James Webb Space Telescope

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A new report has warned the James Webb Telescope’s primary mirror may have suffered more damage than previously thought after a micrometeorite collided into it. The spiritual successor to the Hubble Observatory, the telescope has generated a lot of excitement over the past week as it unveiled stunning images of the oldest and deepest parts of the universe ever seen.

NASA scientists are thrilled by the possibilities the JWST holds, as it could help solve some of the universe’s deepest mysteries, like the enormous black hole called Sagittarius Aor Sgr A that lies in the centre of the Milky Way.

However, a paper published on Tuesday on the academic preprint server arxiv.org revealed that most of the micrometeoroid strikes on James Webb’s big mirror had resulted in negligible damage.

Unfortunately, the report warned that one strike in mid-May from a micrometeoroid left the expensive telescope with permanent damage.

The authors wrote: “The single micrometeorite impact that occurred between 22 — 24 May 2022 UT exceeded prelaunch expectations of damage for a single micrometeoroid triggering further investigation and modelling by the JWST Project.”

Micrometeoroids are tiny space rocks, usually weighing less than a gram.

Despite its negligible size, the report warned that further strikes from such space rocks could pose a threat to the longevity of the observatory.

The report read: “The mirrors and sunshield are expected to slowly degrade from micrometeoroid impacts.

“The detectors are expected to experience cumulative slow damage from charged particles; the sunshield and multilayer insulation will degrade from space weathering.

“The spacecraft was designed for a five year mission (as is standard for NASA science missions); and the science instruments include many moving parts at cryogenic temperatures.

“At present, the largest source of uncertainty is the long-term effects of micrometeoroid impacts that slowly degrade the primary mirror.”

The JWST uses a 6.5-metre diameter segmented mirror to collect light and focus on scientific instruments, which is exposed to space.

In contrast, its predecessor Hubble, encloses the primary mirror inside a cylindrical housing.

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However, scientists have noted that given Webb’s orbit around Lagrangian point 2 about one million miles from Earth, the observatory will only face potentially hazardous micrometeoroids about once per month.

The report found that during the commissioning period from late January into June, the primary mirror was struck by tiny space rocks six times, while the NASA team on the ground was calibrating and aligning the telescope.

Out of those impacts, five did minimal damage to the primary mirror, and the researchers will be able to adjust the calculations to account for the impact.

However, the sixth impact, which struck a mirror segment labelled C3, caused more damage than NASA can fully correct for.

The report read: “It is not yet clear whether the May 2022 hit to segment C3 was a rare event (i.e. an unlucky early strike by a high kinetic energy micrometeoroid that statistically might occur only once in several years) or whether the telescope may be more susceptible to damage by micrometeoroids than pre-launch modelling predicted.”

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