NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Is Probably Going To Be Delayed Yet Again

The telescope's 18-segmented gold mirror, pictured last year. NASA/Desiree Stover

Welp, bad news astronomers. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) might have to be delayed again, according to a new report.

The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) said yesterday that there were still some issues with the telescope that need to be resolved, which means it might not make its planned launch window between March and June 2019 (delayed from October 2018). A new launch window has not yet been set.

“Given the remaining integration and test work ahead… we believe that additional delays to the project’s launch readiness date are likely,” the report noted.

They said that the telescope had limited cost reserves remaining, and was at risk of breaching its current $8.8 billion cost cap – so more funding would be needed. They also slated its prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, for its “overestimated workforce reductions.”

“JWST is still resolving technical challenges and work continues to take longer than planned to complete,” they added.

SpaceNews said that Northrop Grumman had teams working on the JWST in shifts 24 hours a day, with 500 staff working on it full-time – five times higher than originally projected.

The issues seem to revolve around the deployment of the telescope and its vast, tennis court-sized sunshield (to protect it from solar rays) once it’s in space. It will take more than two weeks to get it into its targeted position beyond the orbit of the Moon, 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) away, with thousands of moving parts on board. Just one failure could scupper the whole mission; we will have no means of repairing it.

How JWST will be deployed. NASA

And that would be disastrous. JWST is massively over-budget and delayed to the point of being a joke. It was originally scheduled to launch in 2007 for $500 million. Now, it’s 2019 at the earliest, at a cost more than 16 times that – so far.

Many have bemoaned the fact that the JWST is sucking up a large portion of NASA’s astronomy budget. And this latest news is not going to do much to deter some of its detractors.

When it does eventually launch, though, the JWST is going to be rather fantastic. Observing the universe in infrared, it will enable us to study distant stars and galaxies, surpassing the abilities of Hubble, and even probe the atmospheres of exoplanets. It may be one of our best tools in the search for life beyond Earth.

More than 20 years in the making, JWST is not only expensive but hugely complex. So while these delays are painful, and it continues to eat up money, we can only hope they’ll ensure that the mission goes ahead without any problems. Fingers crossed.


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