The most sophisticated and ambitious space-based observatory ever conceived by the human mind, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will not be ready to launch until AT LEAST Spring of 2021, according to a report this week by an Independent Review Board (IRB) established by NASA to assess the JWST program.
JWST is one of NASA’s most ambitious, complex and expensive projects ever, but has been plagued with problems and delays ever since it entered development in 1999. And while such projects of technological sophistication will always face various unforeseen challenges, JWST has faced so many that it will now launch a decade later than originally planned (at least), and will require the U.S. Congress to reauthorize the highly-anticipated mission, because it has now gone over its cost cap set by Congress in 2011.
The House of Representatives’ appropriations committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science moved to kill the JWST all together in 2011, citing numerous delays, cost overruns, and poor management, but Congress reversed the cancellation plans and instead capped additional funding at $8 billion—four times more expensive than originally proposed.
“Webb should continue based on its extraordinary scientific potential and critical role in maintaining U.S. leadership in astronomy and astrophysics,” said Tom Young, the chair of the review board. “Ensuring every element of Webb functions properly before it gets to space is critical to its success.”
One major problem which arose recently occurred during acoustic testing of the spacecraft element (the observatory’s combined sunshield and spacecraft bus) at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, where engineers subjected the spacecraft to extreme sound and resultant vibration which can be expected during the launch itself. Following the testing, detailed inspections showed that fastening hardware that hold the sunshield membrane covers in place had come loose.
“To address a risk that fasteners for sunshield membrane covers might snag the membrane, the fastening lock nuts were tightened only to be flush with their bolts,” notes the report. “Unfortunately, this compromised the locking mechanism, and after the test, loose hardware was found in the lower area of the spacecraft.”
Other examples of delays include human errors, which have had substantial cost and schedule impact, such as an incident where an improper solvent was used to clean propulsion system valves, because of a failure to check with the valve vendor to ensure the solvent would not damage the valves. The valves had to be removed from the spacecraft, repaired or replaced, and reinstalled.
“Another human-induced error was improper test wiring that caused excess voltage to be applied to transducers”, says the report. “The error resulted from an improper interpretation of a process step. The error should have been detected by the inspector, who did not inspect, but relied on the technician’s word that he had done the wiring correctly.”
JWST’s extreme complexity were also cited as factors contributing to the delay, with many “firsts” involved with its development, keeping in mind that – once launched – there is no rescue or fix possible if something goes wrong.
The report includes about 30 recommendations for moving forward with JWST.
“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,” says NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine.
“The more we learn more about our universe, the more we realize that Webb is critical to answering questions we didn’t even know how to ask when the spacecraft was first designed,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “Webb is poised to answer those questions, and is worth the wait. The valuable recommendations of the IRB support our efforts towards mission success; we expect spectacular scientific advances from NASA’s highest science priority.”
A joint project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), the JWST—NASA’s successor to the Hubble—will have been in planning, design, and development for over 20 years when it is finally launched atop an Ariane-5 rocket from Arianespace’s ELA-3 launch complex at the European Spaceport located near Kourou, French Guiana.
Once completely assembled, the JWST—with its 69.5 ft x 46.5 ft instruments-protecting sunshield deployed—will be the size of a Boeing 737 airplane. Hubble, in comparison, is about the size of a large tractor-trailer truck or bus. Webb’s 6.5-meter diameter primary mirror will also be bigger, much bigger. The telescope will have nearly seven times more light collecting area than Hubble, allowing for unprecedented infrared observations of distant objects from the dawn of the Universe some 14 billion years ago. Its mirror and instruments will capture images of the Universe and break down the spectra of incoming light to analyze the properties of galaxies, stars, and the atmospheres of planets beyond our Solar System.
You can read the full report by the IRB HERE.