Webb Telescope Struck by Meteorite: Here’s Why NASA Isn’t Worried

James Webb Space Telescope

One of the James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror segments was struck by a micrometeoroid and while it has been damaged, NASA says it’s not cause for alarm and the telescope is still on schedule.

The impact occurred between May 23 and May 25 and was reported to the public last week. Despite the impact on one of its primary mirrors — the system Webb uses to make its observations — NASA says that the telescope is still performing at a level that exceeds all mission requirements despite a “marginally detectable” effect in the data.

Space is chaotic and hard to predict. NASA claims that the telescope’s impacts are not only going to occur, but are even expected.

“Impacts will continue to occur throughout the entirety of Webb’s lifetime in space; such events were anticipated when building and testing the mirror on the ground,” NASA says.

The space agency claims that Webb’s mirror is designed to resist bombardment by micrometeoroids. This happens because the orbit of Webb contains large particles, which fly at high speeds.

” We knew Webb had to withstand the harsh space environment. This includes cosmic radiation from other sources, ultraviolet light, charged particles, the Sun and occasionally strikes by micrometeoroids in our solar system.” Paul Geithner is technical deputy project manager for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt.

“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.”

In late May, Webb sustained a dust-sized micrometeroid impact to a primary mirror segment. Webb continues to perform at an exceptional level, exceeding all mission requirements. Our first images will #UnfoldTheUniverse on July 12: https://t.co/9jp0uq7ytS pic.twitter.com/VKkSp16yrg

— NASA Webb Telescope (@NASAWebb) June 8, 2022

“Micrometeoroid strikes are an unavoidable aspect of operating any spacecraft, and we expect that impacts will continue to occur throughout Webb’s lifetime,” NASA Webb Telescope team wrote on Twitter. Our team tested and built the mirror at the ground in anticipation of such events

NASA says engineers performed simulations as well as actual impacts on mirror samples while Webb was being constructed. This allowed them to understand how the telescope would react to space impacts and how they could ensure that the telescope continued to function when necessary. And while NASA says that this impact was larger than the scientists tested for — and beyond what the team could have tested on the ground — the space agency is confident that Webb can continue to perform as designed.

The impact of this meteor shower was unavoidable and NASA has formed a team to study ways of mitigating the impacts of micrometeoroids on Webb at such a large scale.

Webb’s mirrors can be adjusted to correct for the damage, and NASA says that they have been able to adjust the affected segment to cancel out a portion of the distortion that was caused by the impact.

So while NASA is working to make sure that future impacts don’t cause any major problems to Webb, this first impact has caused no change to Webb’s operating schedule and the plan to capture its first full-color photo this summer nor its first scientific observations.