Space is absolutely full of floating debris, and I don’t just mean the hundreds of derelict satellites. Space rocks, from meteoroids to full-on meteorites, are always passing by the Earth, and a few even enter our atmosphere, though most of them burn up on entry. Of course, that only happens because we have the atmosphere to protect us. Our scientific equipment out in orbit isn’t so lucky.
NASA confirmed today that, at the tail-end of May, the James Webb Space Telescope was impacted by a micrometeoroid, specifically in one of its large mirrors. A micrometeoroid, typically, is only about as big as a grain of sand, but when there’s no atmosphere and infinite momentum, even a tiny object can cause a bullet-like impact on a sheer surface like that. While the Webb Telescope and its components were built to withstand such weathering, the techs still had to make some adjustments on the fly to remedy the distortion that arose from the impact.
“We always knew that Webb would have to weather the space environment, which includes harsh ultraviolet light and charged particles from the Sun, cosmic rays from exotic sources in the galaxy, and occasional strikes by micrometeoroids within our solar system,” Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said in a statement.
NASA’s $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope has had a rough encounter with an extraterrestrial hazard: It got dinged by a micrometeoroid. https://t.co/oEu7y66Eci
— The Washington Post (@washingtonpost) June 9, 2022
“We designed and built Webb with performance margin – optical, thermal, electrical, mechanical – to ensure it can perform its ambitious science mission even after many years in space.”
Thankfully, the engineers don’t expect that this impact will cause any lasting damage, which means the Webb should still be able to share some high-resolution images of its sightings next month.