NASA’s mighty $10 billion space telescope is firing on all cylinders again.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST or Webb) resumed full science operations Monday, January 30, recovering from a problem that affected one of its instruments.
The Webb team conducted days of testing and evaluation after a “communications delay” on January 15 caused problems with the telescope’s Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument, according to a statement from the Tuesday, January 31. (opens in a new tab) from NASA.
“Observations that have been affected by the NIRISS operations pause will be postponed,” the agency said in its brief statement, noting that the instrument was successfully retrieved Friday, January 27.
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NIRISS was provided by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), so NASA and CSA personnel worked side-by-side for troubleshooting. The initial problem was a “communication delay within the instrument, causing its flight software to expire,” according to a Jan. 24 statement. (opens in a new tab) from NASA.
NIRISS can normally operate in four different modes (opens in a new tab), according to NASA. The instrument can be instructed to function as a camera when other JWST instruments are busy. Alternatively, NIRISS can look at the light signatures of small exoplanet atmospheres, do high-contrast imaging, or examine distant galaxies.
Prior to the NIRISS issue, an issue arose on another Webb instrument in August 2022: a grating wheel inside the observatory’s mid-infrared instrument (MIRI). However, the wheel is only required for one of MIRI’s four observing modes, so the instrument continued to observe during recovery operations. Work on recovering the affected mode, called the medium-resolution spectrometer, was completed in November.
In December, the JWST team also spent two weeks dealing with an issue that put the telescope into safe mode, making scientific observations difficult. A software glitch in the observatory’s attitude control system has been identified as the problem, affecting the direction the telescope is pointing. The observatory recovered from this problem relatively quickly, resuming full scientific operations on December 20.
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “Why am I taller (opens in a new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) or Facebook (opens in a new tab).