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Exploring the Cosmos Interrupted: James Webb Telescope’s NIRISS Instrument Offline

The James Webb Space Telescope encounters a communication delay in its NIRISS instrument

James Webb

The James Webb Space Telescope, a groundbreaking technology designed to study the cosmos, has encountered a glitch with one of its key instruments – the Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph, also known as NIRISS. While the instrument is currently offline, engineers are working tirelessly to resolve the issue, ensuring the safety of the hardware.

Issues like these are not uncommon in space telescopes, particularly given the complexities of performing physical maintenance in space. As a precaution, when problems arise, instruments on telescopes such as Hubble or the Swift Observatory enter safe mode to prevent any damage from being done.

The NIRISS instrument experienced a communication delay, causing its flight software to time out. NASA and the Canadian Space Agency are working together to determine and correct the root cause of this delay so that NIRISS can resume science observations. NIRISS works in tandem with another sensor known as the Fine Guidance Sensor to point the telescope towards its target accurately.

NIRISS, a versatile instrument, operates as both a camera and a spectrograph. It is equipped with a unique feature – an aperture mask – which allows it to block out light from bright sources, improving its ability to observe dimmer sources in the surrounding areas. The instrument is crucial for tasks such as detecting and studying exoplanets, as well as exploring distant galaxies.

Due to this setback, NASA has announced that the scientific observations scheduled to be carried out with NIRISS will be rescheduled. This follows another software issue in the attitude control system that caused some instruments to enter safe mode in December 2022, leading to a pause in science observations. However, the issue was resolved by December 20th, and science operations resumed.

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