A micrometeoroid that hit the James Webb Space Telescope in May caused a "significant uncorrectable change" to one of its panels used to observe deep space.

So far, Webb has faced at least six deformations on its main mirror panels that have been traced to micrometeoroid strikes, but five of those degradations were negligible or correctable by adjusting the processing formulas, per NASA. The strike in May, however, does not appear to be correctable and slightly reduces the breadth of accurate data the telescope can collect.

"The effect was small at the full telescope level because only a small portion of the telescope area was affected. After two subsequent realignment steps, the telescope was aligned to a minimum of 59 nm rms, which is about 5-10 nm rms above the previous best wavefront error rms values," NASA said in a recent report.

NASA noted that the strike in May "exceeded prelaunch expectations of damage for a single micrometeoroid" but stressed that the telescope's performance broadly has surpassed its expectations as well.

To mitigate the toll of the damage on the telescope's performance after the strike in May, engineers realigned the telescope's segments to adjust for the damage done.

While the strike in May had a minor impact on the full functionality of the $10 billion telescope as a whole, NASA expressed concerns about the toll future micrometeoroid impacts could have on the telescope.

"It is not yet clear whether the May 2022 hit to segment C3 was a rare event," the report said. "The project team is conducting additional investigations into the micrometeoroid population, how impacts affect beryllium mirrors, and the efficacy and efficiency tradeoffs of potential mitigations."

Micrometeoroids are fragments of asteroids that can be smaller than a grain of sand, but they travel at high speeds, according to NASA.

"The mirrors and sunshield are expected to slowly degrade from micrometeoroid impacts," the report added. "The Project is actively working this issue to ensure a long, productive science mission with JWST."

Last week, President Joe Biden unveiled the powerful telescope's first image of deep space, the sharpest infrared image of the universe produced. The infrared technology enables the telescope to peer through cosmic dust and obtain a better glimpse of some of the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe.

The James Webb telescope was launched into space last December, and scientists are hoping it will last over 20 years in space.


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