NASA wants reassurance, but hopefully this glitch doesn’t mask a deeper problem.
NASA has announced that one of the James Webb Space Telescope’s primary instruments, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), is currently down due to a technical problem. There’s no cause for panic yet, and the agency sees the device as no risk in the long run. But she still gave him a vacation to find out.
MIRI is one of JWST’s most important tools. It is indeed the only instrument in the observatory that works in the mid-infrared, ie it can capture wavelengths between 5 and 28 microns. It offers four different viewing modes. One of them, marked “Moderate Resolution Integrated Field Spectroscopy“, or MRS, has encountered some problems.
In this viewing mode, the telescope will not take such pictures.Instead, it records spectrumIn short, they make it possible to study the way different chemicals absorb some very specific wavelengths of light; astronomers can then deduce a lot of information about objects in the light’s path.
Wheel of Fortune
For this, MIRI has a wheel equipped with different filters; simply rotate it to select the corresponding filter and observe the target object at the desired wavelength. This makes the instrument extremely versatile and allows researchers to study the spectrum of many different kinds of astronomical wonders…at least, when this most important component is working properly.
Because it is this element that is the source of the problem identified by NASA. At the end of August, the agency detected friction on the shaft ; The structure is not rotated as expected. On Earth, a little lube is certainly enough. But when we’re talking about a machine parked in orbit about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, things are quite different.
The rest of the instruments performed well
As a precautionary principle, the space agency has therefore decided not to use moderate-resolution spectroscopy in the near future. Therefore, this mode of operation will remain on the bench It’s time to determine the origin of this friction. “The Webb team has suspended observations using this particular mode.“, the agency announced in a press release. Time to analyze his behavior.”She is currently developing a strategy to restart MRS observations as soon as possible.‘, she pointed out.
However, she wants to feel reassured about the general condition of the telescope. “The observatory is healthy”, NASA explained. This also means that the other three MIRI observation modes are nothing to worry about.”Imaging, low-resolution spectroscopy and coronagraphs are operating normally and will continue to be used for scientific observations”, Designated Agency.
All that’s left is to wait until NASA finds the source of the problem. The agency has not communicated about the issue, but it may be the result of micrometeorite influences.
These objects are tiny rocks, usually smaller than grains of sand, that travel at very high speeds and can therefore cause considerable damage. It’s one of the main threats the telescope has to contend with, and engineers apparently took precautions. But the instrument is not entirely immune to these collisions. For example, last June, the machine was hit by a meteorite, leaving a mark on one of the 18 hexagonal mirrors, small but visible and beyond repair (see our article). So hopefully MIRI hasn’t suffered incalculable damage, even though the most sensitive components are of course carefully hidden behind protective armor.