The NASA James Webb Space Telescope has encountered a technical problem. A key instrument on the telescope has a problem with its sensors. A mode of the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) is receiving less throughput from the sensor. In other words, the instrument is receiving a lower amount of light than expected at longer wavelengths. NASA officials are promptly investigating the cause.
Damage to the MIRI instrument?
“No effects have been observed for MIRI imaging and there is no risk to the instrument. All other observation modes, both within MIRI and each of Webb’s other scientific instruments, remain unaffected” NASA officials wrote in an update (ref.).
“NASA and its partners are developing a systematic plan to address, analyze, and then resolve the issue. The Webb team will continue MIRI observations as planned” the update added. MIRI has both a camera and a spectrometer (a device capable of separating light into different wavelengths) to detect light from distant objects such as galaxies, comets, or stars.
MIRI is also a remarkably versatile instrument. In fact, it has already demonstrated in this year of use that it can image faint objects in our Solar System, such as bodies in the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped ring beyond Neptune‘s orbit.
It’s not the first problem
This isn’t the first time the James Webb, and in particular the MIRI instrument, have run into a technical problem involving the medium-resolution spectrometer. The instrument had a stuck grating for several months between August and November 2022. However, MIRI was still able to observe the cosmos using other modes.
While NASA continues to investigate what went wrong this time with MIRI, Friday’s update suggests that the team may be able to work around the issue. One solution would be to use “slightly longer exposures at the affected wavelengths” to obtain clearer images if necessary.
The James Webb, which costs $10 billion, has mostly worked well since its launch on December 25, 2021. The best technology that humanity has made available in the field of astronomy could function in space for at least 20 years. In its first year of operation, it has already collected a series of stunning images and carried out several scientific operations that are slowly revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos. We just have to wait for further statements from NASA to understand how the repair of the space telescope is progressing.