spaceSpace and PhysicsspaceAstronomy

The James Webb Space Telescope Has Been Delayed Again – After It Literally Fell Apart


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer


The JWST has been under construction for more than a decade. NASA

The news just keeps getting worse for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). NASA has announced that its flagship astronomy project has been delayed yet again, until March 2021 at the earliest – and, well, it’s literally falling apart.

NASA announced the latest delay in a press conference yesterday. They said an independent review of the project had concluded that, while the program should still continue, it will miss its latest planned launch date of May 2020 – the third delay for the program in nine months.


“We’re all disappointed that the culmination of Webb and its launch is taking longer than expected, but we’re creating something new here,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a video statement.

“We’re dealing with cutting-edge technology to perform an unprecedented mission, and I know that our teams are working hard and will successfully overcome the challenges.”

JWST will afford some fantastic science, letting us study galaxies, stars, and planets like never before with its amazing gold-plated mirrors. But the telescope is super complex, and construction of it by Northrop Grumman has turned out to be extremely difficult. It was originally scheduled to launch in 2007 for $500 million – now it will be 2021 for $9.7 billion at least.

This exceeds a cost cap of $8 billion placed on the mission by Congress in 2011. So NASA will need to get the mission reauthorized by Congress in order to go ahead.

JWST will orbit 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) from Earth at Lagrange point 2. NASA

What’s more, it turns out there have been some pretty hilariously dreadful errors with the telescope. One is that the wrong solvent was used to clean some of the valves, meaning the valves had to be replaced.

And, as The Atlantic noted, there was a rather disastrous moment where the telescope literally fell apart. During an acoustics test, which involves checking that the spacecraft can survive the sounds of launch, fasteners on the telescope’s tennis court-sized sun shield came loose, scattering about 70 bolts.

“We’re really close to finding every one of the pieces,” Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator, said.


The JWST will be deployed in a position beyond the orbit of the Moon, meaning it probably can’t be serviced after launch like Hubble was. This means everything has to work at launch, with no chance of repair.


It has thousands of moving pieces and has a whopping unfurling process over a month that involves 180 steps. If just one major thing goes wrong, the mission – and the billions of dollars spent on it – will be down the drain.

So it’s perhaps understandable that NASA is being so careful with it, but you can only really laugh at some of the avoidable errors so far. The JWST will be amazing, no doubt – let’s just hope we eventually get to see it launch in one piece.

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