NASA space telescope has instrument problems caused by ‘increased friction’

Yellow hexagons make up the JWST mirror on a blue background.
NASA halted observations with one of the JWST modes. | Photo illustration by Alex Castro / MovieBeat

There’s a crease in one of the instruments of NASA’s mighty James Web Space Telescope, the agency announced on Tuesday. After about two months of returning beautiful, sharp photos from the depths of space, the team behind the telescope has detected a problem with one of the four observing modes on JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). . Observations using this mode are paused while the team learns more.

MIRI, the telescope’s mid-infrared instrument, can see wavelengths of light invisible to the human eye. It’s good for seeing clear details of things like newly formed stars. It was used to take the image of the group of galaxies “Stephan’s Quintet”, for example.

Swirling pink and blue galaxies on a starry background.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI/Handout via Xinhua
Stephan’s Quintet images used the mid-infrared instrument.

In late August, the team found “increased friction” on one of the wheels used to switch between wavelengths on a mode of MIRI medium-resolution spectroscopy mode, NASA said in a statement. The agency convened an anomaly review board on September 6 and decided to discontinue using this mode for the time being. They are working to find a solution.

The rest of the mid-infrared instrument’s modes are correct and available for making observations, as is the rest of the telescope, the agency said. The telescope has a total of 17 modes across its four instruments, each of which can be used to search for different types of information in the universe. MIRI’s medium-resolution spectroscopy mode can be used to analyze molecules in disks of planet-forming debris, while other modes might be better for observing quasars or taking extremely detailed snapshots of distant galaxies.

That’s not the only setback for the JWST, which got into position to observe the cosmos last winter — in June it was hit by a micrometeoroid that damaged one of its mirrors. This incident was not a huge shock. Even for a $10 billion telescope, being hit by space junk is an unavoidable part of space travel.

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