NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has suffered numerous setbacks and delays, but it continues to inch ever closer to launch. The agency established an Independent Review Board (IRB) to analyze the project and recommend how to proceed. There’s good news and bad news on that front. The IRB says that work on the telescope should continue (obviously), but the board has set a new launch date in 2021. That’s even later than the last launch window.
The JWST is intended as a successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope. After more than two decades of service, Hubble could fail at any time and leave us without a powerful orbital telescope. Planning for the Webb telescope started way back in the late 90s, but repeated delays in design and building have ballooned its cost far beyond the original $1.6 billion budget. It’s currently closing in on $10 billion.
Earlier this year, NASA pushed the Webb launch back to at least mid-2020. The new report sets a launch date almost a year later than that — March 30, 2021. The IRB review is 69 pages long, detailing all the issues that have cropped up as NASA attempts to finalize the telescope. For example, contractor Northrop Grumman has been working crews around the clock to finish assembly and testing of the JWST, so there’s no room for flexibility in the schedule.
The report also cites anomalies in acoustic tests as the primary reason for the most recent delay. During the test, several screws and washers came loose from the spacecraft. Northrop Grumman engineers believe these are from the sun shield, but they need more time to confirm and develop countermeasures. The last thing you want is screws to come loose during launch.
We might not be out of the woods yet, either. The report notes that even small human errors or testing abnormalities can result in multi-month delays and tens of millions in added costs. The current launch date could slip again, but we need to be certain this hugely important telescope works when it gets up there. The JWST will sit at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point, much farther away than Hubble. It won’t be possible to send a mission up to repair it if something goes wrong. The more powerful instruments on the JWST are also more sensitive than Hubble’s. NASA will only clear the telescope for launch when it’s completely satisfied.
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