Looks like there’s trouble out at L2, where the James Webb Space Telescope suffered a mechanical anomaly back in August. The issue, which was just announced this week, involves only one of the six imaging instruments at the heart of the space observatory, known as MIRI, the Mid-Infrared Instrument. MIRI is the instrument on Webb that needs the coldest temperatures to work correctly, down to six Kelvins — we’ve talked about the cryocooler needed to do this in some detail. The problem has to do with unexpectedly high friction during the rotation of a wheel holding different diffraction gratings. These gratings are rotated into the optical path for different measurements, but apparently the motor started drawing excessive current during its move, and was shut down. NASA says that this only affects one of the four observation modes of MIRI, and the rest of the instruments are just fine at this time. So they’ve got some troubleshooting to do before Webb returns to a full program of scientific observations.
There’s an old saying that, “To err is human, but to really screw things up takes a computer.” But in Russia, to really screw things up it takes a computer and a human with a really poor grasp on just how delicately balanced most infrastructure systems are. The story comes from Moscow, where someone allegedly spoofed a massive number of fake orders for taxi rides (story in Russian, Google Translate works pretty well) through the aggregator Yandex.Taxi on the morning of September 1. The taxi drivers all dutifully converged on the designated spot, but instead of finding their fares, they just found a bunch of other taxis milling about and mucking up traffic. Yandex reports it has already added protection against such attacks to its algorithm, so there’s that at least. It’s all fun and games until someone causes a traffic jam.
The folks at NASA are taking a well-deserved victory lap this week after the splashy reveal of the first scientific images from the James Webb Space Telescope. As we expected, the first public release included a lot of comparisons to images obtained from Hubble, as the general public understandably sees Webb as the successor to the venerable space telescope, now in its third decade of service. So for a “let’s see what this baby can do” image, they turned Webb loose on a tiny patch of sky in the southern hemisphere containing galactic cluster SMACS 0723, and sent back images and spectroscopic data from galaxies up to 13 billion light years away. There are plenty of analyses of Webb’s deep field and the other images in the first release, but we particularly liked the takes by both Anton Petrov and Dr. Becky. They both talk about the cooler scientific aspects of these images, and how Webb is much more than just a $10 billion desktop image generator.
“Don’t worry, that’ll buff right out.” Alarming news this week as the James Webb Space Telescope team announced that a meteoroid had hit the space observatory’s massive primary mirror. While far from unexpected, the strike on mirror segment C3 (the sixth mirror from the top going clockwise, roughly in the “south southeast” position) that occurred back in late May was larger than any of the simulations or test strikes performed on Earth prior to launch. It was also not part of any known meteoroid storm in the telescope’s orbit; if it had been, controllers would have been able to maneuver the spacecraft to protect the gold-plated beryllium segments. The rogue space rock apparently did enough damage to be noticeable in the data coming back from the telescope and to require adjustment to the position of the mirror segment. While it certainly won’t be the last time this happens, it would have been nice to see one picture from Webb before it started accumulating hits.
The telescope will require seven total mirrors each 27 feet (8.4 meters) in diameter for a total combined diameter of 24.5 meters. Half of an Olympic size pool’s length. A little over four times the diameter of the James Webb Space Telescope.
According to the website, the mirrors are cast at the University of Arizona mirror lab and take four years each to make. They’re made from blocks of Japanese glass laid out in a giant oven. The whole process of casting the glass takes a year, from laying it out to the months of cooling, it’s a painstaking process.
Once the cooling is done there’s another three years of polishing to get the mirror just right. If you’ve ever had to set up a metal block for precision machining on a mill, you might have an idea of why this takes so long. Especially if you make that block a few tons of glass and the surface has to be ground to micron tolerances. A lot of clever engineering went into this, including, no joke, a custom grinding tool full of silly putty. Though, at its core it’s not much different from smaller lens making processes.
The telescope is expected to be finished in 2024, for more information on the mirror process there’s a nice article here.