NASA again delays launch of James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope’s optical system and instruments were subjected to a simulated space environment in an Apollo-era vacuum chamber at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. The telescope is now undergoing processing at a Northrup Grumman facility in California where engineers have encountered multiple problems. Image: NASA

Launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will slip at least another 10 months, to March 30, 2021, because of technical issues and management problems that will push its already astronomical price tag up to $9.66 billion for the observatory and five years of operations. That’s $837 million higher than earlier estimates.

The revised spending projection is well above a congressionally mandated cost cap, forcing NASA to seek formal re-authorisation of the flagship project.

U.S. lawmakers and the Trump administration have not yet addressed Webb’s latest woes, but Thomas Zurbuchen, director of space science at NASA Headquarters, said everyone he’s briefed so far agrees the telescope will produce compelling science. But paying for it is another matter.

“I think it’s too early to really get an exact sense of what’s happening there,” he told reporters. “Generally speaking, what I do believe was present in every one of these discussions is the belief that the science is really compelling and remains compelling as we go forward. But I think it would be premature to give beyond that a real sense of where we’re going.”

An artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope after launch, with its huge sunshade and segmented mirror fully deployed. Image: NASA

The launch delay was announced after an independent review of Webb’s current status, technical problems that remain to be resolved and management practices by NASA and its prime contractor Northrup Grumman.

Board chairman Thomas Young, a widely respected aerospace engineer and manager, said the March 2021 launch date assumes all of the panel’s recommendations are carried out, that no new problems of any significance are identified and that none of Webb’s science instruments or subsystems are removed for additional inspections or repairs.

It also assumes NASA and Northrup Grumman do not have to deploy the telescope’s huge sunshade more than twice for testing before launch. The five-layer sun shade, the size of a tennis court when fully deployed in space, has proven to be especially challenging with overly slack tensioning cables and rips in the thin Kapton material.

Improperly attached fasteners that shook apart during acoustic tests to mimic the sound and vibrations Webb will experience during launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket resulted in more than 60 bits of debris, at least two of which have not yet been found.

Young also stressed the need for a top-level manager to oversee the myriad post-launch commissioning events that must go smoothly for the observatory to function properly.

That’s especially important, he said, because unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which operates in low-Earth orbit where it could be serviced, upgraded and repaired by spacewalking astronauts, the JWST is bound for the sun-Earth Lagrange point No. 2 — L2 — about one million miles from Earth.

At that far remove, Webb will be completely on its own, well beyond the reach of spacewalking astronauts and any possibility of hands-on repairs.

The telescope’s tennis court-size sun shade, fully deployed during testing at Northrup Grumman’s processing facility. Image: NASA

Despite the challenges, Young said the review board “believes that JWST should continue because of the compelling science and because of JWST’s national importance.”

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine agreed, saying JWST is “vital to the next generation of research beyond NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope.”

“It’s going to do amazing things, things we’ve never been able to do before, as we peer into other galaxies and see light from the very dawn of time,” he said in a statement. “Despite major challenges, the board and NASA unanimously agree that Webb will achieve mission success with the implementation of the board’s recommendations, many of which already are underway.”