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NASA’s deep space telescope is having instrument trouble caused by “increased friction”

NASA’s deep space telescope is having instrument trouble caused by “increased friction”


One of the observing modes is offline for now

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Yellow hexagons make up the JWST mirror against a blue backdrop.
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 in NASA’s powerful James Web Space Telescope, the agency said Tuesday. After around two months of sending back beautiful, precise photos from deep in space, the team behind the telescope detected an issue with one of the four observing modes on JWST’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI). Observations using that mode are on pause 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 forming stars. It was used to take the image of the galaxy group “Stephan’s Quintet,” for example.

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

In late August, the team saw “increased friction” on one of the wheels used to switch between wavelengths on one mode of MIRI the medium-resolution spectroscopy mode, NASA said in a statement. The agency convened an anomaly review board on September 6th and decided to stop using that mode for now. They’re working to find 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 across its four instruments, which can each be used to look for different kinds 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 looking at quasars or taking extremely detailed shots of distant galaxies.

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