James Webb Space Telescope: where it is, date NASA will release first JWST images, damage caused by meteoroid

James Webb Space Telescope: where it is, date NASA will release first JWST images, damage caused by meteoroid

Nasa’s new James Webb Telescope has been damaged by a tiny rock fragment, almost six months after it was launched into space.

Costing almost £8bn, the space mission was launched on Christmas Day and reached its final position in deep space on 24 January.

Astronomers are due to release its first views of the cosmos back to earth on in July, and the images are expected to show distant stars and other far-off objects.

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

Developed over the past 20 years, James Webb was created to succeed the revolutionary Hubble Space Telescope which is now ageing.

The James Webb Telescope will have a greater focus on the infrared wavelength than the Hubble,

This is important for peering through gas and dust clouds to see distant objects.

It also boasts a mirror that is nearly 60 times bigger than previous infrared telescopes and promises to provide Hubble’s great image resolution and also greater sensitivity.

Webb has an open design. Its mirrors are not guarded by the kind of tubular baffle seen on other space telescopes, such as Hubble.

The reflectors sit behind one giant sunshield that allows them to maintain the stable, cold temperatures needed to detect infrared light.

The Planetary Society said the entire project, from construction through to the end of its active service, will cost around $10.8bn (£7.97bn).

What damage has been caused to the telescope?

A tiny rock fragment has hit the new James Webb Space Telescope’s main mirror.

Analysis indicates the mirror segment known as C3, one of the 18 beryllium-gold tiles that make up Webb’s 6.5m-wide primary reflector, was struck.

The speed at which things move through space means even the smallest particles can cause a high energy impact when colliding with another object.

The contact left a "dimple" in the segment, according to Nasa.

It is thought the damage happened recently, and could have occurred sometime between 23 and 25 May.

The telescope has now actually been hit five times, but the latest incident is the most significant.

What impact will the damage have on the images the telescope sends?

The damage inflicted by the dust-sized micrometeoroid is producing a noticeable effect in the observatory’s data but is not expected to limit the mission’s overall performance.

Engineers are adjusting the positioning of the affected mirror segment to cancel out as much of the introduced distortion as possible, but it is not possible to remove it all.

Nasa said the images the telescope sends back to earth would be no less stunning because of what has happened, however.

What has Nasa said about the damage?

The possibility of rock fragments hitting the telescope was anticipated by Nasa, and this was taken into account when decisions such as choice of materials, the construction of components and the different modes of operating the spacecraft were made.

Paul Geithner, technical deputy project manager at Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Centre in Greenbelt, Maryland, said: "We always knew that Webb would have to weather the space environment, which includes harsh ultraviolet light and charged particles from the Sun, cosmic rays from exotic sources in the galaxy, and occasional strikes by micrometeoroids within our Solar System.

"We designed and built Webb with performance margin - optical, thermal, electrical, mechanical - to ensure it can perform its ambitious science mission even after many years in space."

When are the first images expected to be sent back to earth?

The first images from the spacecraft are expected to be received on earth on Tuesday, 12 July.

What will the telescope be able to show us?

NASA said it hopes the James Webb telescope will provide a new view of the universe and will capture humanity’s imagination with major discoveries.

It might be able to capture images of some of the universe’s first stars, which are believed to have been formed after the big bang almost 14 billion years ago.

Scientists are hoping they’ll be able to train the telescope on the atmospheres of distant planets to see if those worlds might be habitable.

The spacecraft will also be able to look deep into our own galaxy, with scientists hoping to catch a better glimpse of the black hole that sits at the centre of the Milky Way.

We should also get a better view of planets, both within our solar system and beyond.

The telescope began commissioning in February, and it is thought that the process will last for around six months - meaning it will come to an end in August.

Who has the telescope been named after?

The spacecraft is named after James E. Webb - the man who ran Nasa between February 1961 and October 1968 when the US space agency was preparing to land the first humans on the moon.