NASA’s deep space telescope has instrument problems caused by “increased friction”


NASA paused observations with one of the JWST modes. | Photo illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

There’s a kink in one of the instruments of NASA’s powerful James Web Space Telescope, the desk said Tuesday. After about two months of sending back beautiful, accurate pictures from deep in space, the team behind the telescope discovered a problem with one of four observation modes on JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Observations using that mode are interrupted as the team learns more.

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

Swirling pink and blue galaxies against a starry sky.
NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI/Handout via Xinhua
Images from Stephan’s Quintet made use of the mid-infrared instrument.

In late August, the team noticed “increased friction” on one of the wheels used to switch wavelengths in one mode of MIRI the medium-resolution spectroscopy mode, NASA said in a statement. The agency convened an anomaly review committee on Sept. 6 and decided to stop using that mode for the time being. They are working on a solution.

The rest of the modes in the mid-infrared instrument are fine and available to make observations, as is the rest of the telescope, the agency said. The telescope has 17 modes total about its four tools, 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 may be better for looking at quasars or taking highly detailed images of distant galaxies.

This isn’t the only hiccup for the JWST, which moved into position to observe the cosmos last winter — in June, it was hit by a micrometeoroid that damaged one of its mirrors. That incident was not a big shock. Even for a $10 billion telescope, getting hit by space debris is an inevitable part of space travel.


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