A James Webb glitch caused a science instrument to stop working

This isn't the first time a glitch negatively impacted Webb's science operations.
Chris Young
An artist's illustration of James Webb.
An artist's illustration of James Webb.

NASA GSFC / CIL / Adriana Manrique Gutierrez 

The James Webb Space Telescope has suffered a glitch that has negatively impacted the observatory's scientific operations.

James Webb launched in Dec. 2021 and started performing scientific operations in July last year. The $10 billion observatory has provided stunning imagery that has already changed our understanding of the cosmos in tangible ways.

On January 15, however, the observatory's ground team suffered a scare. According to a NASA blog post on January 24, Webb's Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (NIRISS) instrument "experienced a communications delay within the instrument, causing its flight software to time out."

James Webb's latest instrument glitch

NASA's post confirms that the NIRISS instruments are not currently used for scientific operations. "There is no indication of any danger to the hardware, and the observatory and other instruments are all in good health," the statement reads. "The affected science observations will be rescheduled."

NIRISS was developed by the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), and NASA points out that it is working with the agency to resolve the issue. NIRISS can operate as a camera when Webb's other cameras are in use, though it can also be used to analyze light signatures to study exoplanets. It is also capable of conducting high-contrast imaging, and it can detect distant galaxies.

Webb's two most important instruments, the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) and Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), were not affected by the glitch.

Most Popular

Are Webb's glitches a cause for concern?

This isn't the first time the space observatory has suffered a glitch.

In August, NASA officials noticed a wheel inside MIRI was showing signs of friction. This wheel is used to cycle the instrument into one of its four modes, so NASA paused using that specific mode while continuing MIRI observations in its three other modes. By November, NASA had found a workaround for the issue, and MIRI can now function using all four modes.

In December, Webb was repeatedly sent into safe mode — meaning its scientific instruments were automatically powered down — due to a software glitch in the observatory's attitude control system, which controls Webb's orientation. NASA reported in a December 20 statement that the issue had been resolved.

Though Webb has suffered a few glitches in its first year of operations, this wasn't an altogether unexpected outcome. NASA has a long track record for operating observatories in space and has dealt with many similar issues in the past. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, has been orbiting Earth for more than 30 years, and NASA recently resolved a software glitch that had plagued the iconic telescope.