AUSTIN (KXAN) — Earlier this week, the James Webb space telescope sent back its first images to Earth. The $10 billion telescope is the largest and most powerful ever built by humans, but it may already be in trouble.
Moriba Jah Ph.D. is the head scientist and cofounder of Privateer Space and an associate professor at the University of Texas. He’s also an expert in space junk.
“Some rocket body or whatever, some dead piece of human-made junk might just slam into the telescope,” Dr. Jah said.
According to Jah, the telescope is located in a part of space known as a Lagrange Point. This point in space is where gravity naturally settles because of the location of the Earth and the Sun. As the Earth orbits the Sun, the Lagrange Points, of which there are five, remain at a relatively fixed position.
According to NASA, these points remain fixed because of the gravitational pull of two bodies. In this case, the Earth and the Sun.
Dr. Jah said while this is a great point to place a satellite, the stability in this space means that things tend to hang out.
“My guess is that there’s probably some amount of dead rocket bodies and other stuff there because they were sent to the moon,” Jah said. “Some of those may have migrated just naturally into these kind of places of gravitational stability.”
Earlier this year, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientist Michelle Thaller said at a press conference that they anticipated Webb would have to deal with space junk.
They anticipated one micrometeorite a year would hit the satellite.
Thaller said at the time that they believed Lagrange Point 2, where Webb resides, is relatively safe and has less space junk that other areas near Earth.
Thaller said that Webb is designed to take some damage and still operate.
A solution for space junk
Dr. Jah has been working on a plan to deal with the growing space junk problem for some time. He developed a system called Astriagraph that uses telescopes around the world to track objects in or near Earth’s orbit.
The system acts as a sort of Waze for space, Jah said. It tracks individual objects moving through space. That information can then be used by people to avoid an accident in the cosmos.
One issue with the system: it doesn’t scan deep space. Jah said to protect the Webb telescope, sensors would need to be deployed in the area around the Lagrange Point.
“We could predict when these things might collide and move the telescope out of harm’s way.”