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NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope mirror is damaged by a tiny space rock

A small meteoroid has hit the main mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope just over a month before the release of the observatory’s first full-color images.

NASA said damage from the dust-sized space rock had a noticeable effect on the $10 billion (£7.4 billion) telescope’s data, but isn’t expected to limit the mission’s performance.

The US space agency added that the impact would in no way ruin the “wow” factor of the telescope’s first images of the cosmos, which will be unveiled to the public on July 12.

The micrometeoroid struck newly deployed James Webb between May 23 and 25, causing one of its gold-plated mirrors to misalign, but the observatory’s schedule in orbit did not change to become fully operational soon, experts said.

NASA revealed it was the fifth and largest space rock to hit the telescope since its launch last December.

Analysis indicates that the impact left a “dimple” in the mirror segment known as C3 — one of the 18 beryllium-gold tiles that make up Webb’s 21-foot-wide primary reflector.

Damage: A small meteoroid has hit the main mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured) just a month before the release of the observatory's first full-color images

Damage: A small meteoroid has hit the main mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope (pictured) just a month before the release of the observatory’s first full-color images

NASA said damage from the dust-sized space rock had a noticeable effect on the telescope's $10 billion (£7.4 billion) data, but it's not expected to limit the mission's performance.

NASA said damage from the dust-sized space rock had a noticeable effect on the telescope’s $10 billion (£7.4 billion) data, but it’s not expected to limit the mission’s performance.

KEY FACTS: NASA’s $10 BILLION JAMES WEBB SPACE TELESCOPE

Operator: NASA

launched: December 25, 2021

Full operation begins: Summer 2022

Place: Sun-Earth L2 point

job type: halo track

Mission duration: 20 years (expected)

Telescope diameter: 21 feet (6.5 m)

Focal Length: 431 feet (131.4 m)

wavelengths: 0.6–28.3 m

“After initial assessments, the team found that the telescope continues to perform at a level exceeding all mission requirements,” NASA said in a statement.

‘In-depth analyzes and measurements are underway.’

Engineers have begun delicate adjustment of the affected mirror segment to “eliminate some of the distortion” caused by the micrometeoroid, the US space agency said.

Webb parked himself in orbit around the sun about a mile from Earth in January and is expected to deliver his first color images next month.

“This recent impact caused no change in Webb’s surgery schedule,” NASA said.

Webb’s mirror was designed to withstand bombardments with particles the size of dust flying into space at extreme speeds, but the most recent impact was “greater than had been modeled and beyond what the team could have tested on the ground.” ‘.

The telescope is considered the most powerful observatory in space ever built, with an array of sensors and 18 gold-plated mirror segments working together to search for distant planets and galaxies from the earliest stages of the universe.

Engineers designed it to withstand incidental impacts from micrometeoroids — tiny space rocks that travel at ultra-high speeds during predicted meteor showers near Webb’s location in space.

Last month’s micrometeoroid didn’t come from a meteor shower, NASA said.

The US space agency called the impact “an unavoidable coincidence” and said it had convened a team of engineers to study ways to prevent future impacts from similar space rocks.

James Webb's main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal and has a diameter of 6.5 meters.  It is supported by three shallow carbon fiber tubes, or struts, that protrude from the large primary transom

James Webb’s main mirror consists of 18 hexagonal segments of gold-plated beryllium metal and has a diameter of 6.5 meters. It is supported by three shallow carbon fiber tubes, or struts, that protrude from the large primary transom

WHAT INSTRUMENTS DOES JAMES WEBB HAVE?

NIRCam (Near InfraRed Camera) an infrared camera from the edge of the visible through the near infrared

NIR specification (Near InfraRed Spectrograph) will also perform spectroscopy over the same wavelength range.

MIRIA (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) measures the mid-to-long infrared wavelength range from 5 to 27 micrometers.

FGS/NIRISS (Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph), is used to stabilize the observatory’s line of sight during scientific observations.

Earlier this month, NASA said the release of Webb’s first color images would be “a unique moment for all of us to stop and marvel at a view that humanity has never seen before.”

Officials previously released a series of technical photos to demonstrate that all hardware works as it should on the telescope.

Those images showed a slightly different view of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of our Milky Way, but it’s unclear what the first color images will capture.

Webb has gone through a six-month preparation period before it can begin scientific work, align its instruments with its space environment and align its mirrors.

It was launched into space on December 25 last year and later settled in orbit a million miles from our planet.

Scientists hope the observatory — a replacement for the 32-year-old Hubble telescope — will be able to look 13.5 billion years back in time to a point within just 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.

It has an ambitious mission to study the early Universe, work out how fast it is expanding now, and analyze objects in the cosmos ranging from galaxies to exoplanets.

NASA said Webb was now “on full blast” and “ready to begin his science mission.”

Once each of Webb’s instruments has been calibrated, tested and given the green light by the scientific and engineering teams, the first images and spectroscopic observations will be made.

The team goes through a list of pre-selected targets before processing the images for the public.

Webb is about 100 times more powerful than the iconic Hubble telescope, allowing it to observe objects at greater distances, ie further back in time, than Hubble or any other telescope.

NASA likes to think of James Webb as a successor to Hubble rather than a replacement, as the two will be working together for a while.

Development of the new telescope began in 1996 and was originally scheduled for launch in 2007, but a major redesign in 2005 brought it back and a series of further delays led to it finally entering orbit late last year.

It is an international collaboration led by NASA in conjunction with the European and Canadian space agencies.

THE JAMES WEBB TELESCOPE

The James Webb telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unravel the secrets of our universe.

The telescope will be used to look back at the first galaxies born in the early Universe more than 13.5 billion years ago, and to observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.

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The massive telescope, which has already cost more than $7 billion (£5 billion), is thought to be a successor to the orbiting Hubble space telescope

The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of about 40 Kelvin – about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).

It is the world’s largest and most powerful orbital space telescope, capable of looking back 100-200 million years after the Big Bang.

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