The launch of NASA's next deep space observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope, is being delayed for about a year, from the spring of 2019 to May 2020. The delay is likely to lead the program to a development budget of 8,000 million dollars. And it's another setback for the long-delayed telescope, which has been in development for more than two decades.
The postponement was expected. An audit of the Government Accountability Office earlier this month predicted that there will be further delays on the way to the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. NASA says all of the flight hardware is complete, but the agency needs more time to test the spacecraft's instruments at the California facilities of its main contractor, Northrop Grumman. The contractor also needs extra time to join the two halves of the vehicle: the part of the telescope and the portion of the spacecraft that will help maneuver JWST into space. "It just took more time," said Thomas Zurbuchen, director of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, during a press conference today. "We were bad to estimate that."
It takes more time to join the two halves of the vehicle
Initially planned in 1996, it was originally expected that JWST would cost between $ 1 billion and $ 3.5 billion, with a launch date scheduled for sometime between 2007 and 2011. But the cost of the project grew in the early 2000s, exceeding $ 4.5 billion, since the telescope launch was postponed constantly. Then, in 2011, the JWST program went through an extensive replan: a new launch date was set for 2018, and Congress limited the cost of the telescope's development to $ 8 billion. After that, NASA said that JWST would eventually cost $ 8.8 billion, with an extra $ 837 million needed to operate the telescope once it was in space.
In September, NASA pushed the date of the launch of JWST until the spring of 2019, due to the time needed to join the pieces of the spacecraft. But he said that the existing budget for the program would accommodate the delay. Now, NASA says it will soon provide an estimate of how much this last delay will exceed the $ 8 billion cap. And that means that Congress must reauthorize the program so that it can move forward. It is not clear how NASA will fit in with the increase in costs, since it expects stable budgets in the coming years.
Despite all the delays and extra money, it seems unlikely that JWST will be eliminated. The primary mirror and instruments of the spacecraft have already been built and subjected to rigorous testing at multiple NASA centers. Canceling the program would mean throwing away the $ 7.3 billion that NASA has already invested so far. "This is the definition of 'sunk cost'," says The Verge Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. "We are launching this."
JWST is scheduled to travel to space on top of an Ariane 5 European rocket from French Guiana in South America, and then travel 1 million miles beyond Earth. Once there, the telescope will be acclaimed as the most powerful space observatory in the world, thanks to its 18 pieces of beryllium hexagon, all coated with a thin layer of gold. When in formation, these pieces make up a giant primary mirror that spans more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) in width. That's six times bigger than the mirror of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently in orbit around Earth.
"This is the definition of 'sunk cost'."
This huge mirror will give JWST an incredible amount of precision. The telescope will be able to look into the atmospheres of the planets outside of our Solar System and look through huge clouds of dust to observe the birth of new stars and planetary systems. But above all, JWST can gather and reflect the light of the primitive Universe. It is believed that the Universe is about 13.8 billion years old, and JWST will be able to observe the light of the first stars and galaxies.
Due to the capabilities of JWST, many astronomers are competing for time with the telescope. Last year, the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees scientific operations at Hubble and JWST, sent a call to astronomers to get proposals on how they would like to use James Webb, with 6,000 hours of observation in play. Those proposals expire next Friday, April 6, but the deadline has been extended to February 1, 2019. "Science changes a lot in a year … The selections of the target people will evolve, the observation strategies of the people will evolve and collaborations will evolve, "says Tremblay. "So now it's very difficult to write a proposal for a spacecraft that might not be launching for two years."
In addition, there may be even more delays on the way. NASA says it only has 70% confidence that it can meet this new release date of May 2020. During a press conference today, NASA executives admitted that several errors were made during the time of the ship space in Northrop Grumman. For example, the contractor accidentally caused seven small breaks in the vehicle's thin sunscreen, a crucial piece of hardware that will protect JWST from excessive heat from the sun by joining the two halves of the vehicle. Those tears have been repaired, but unforeseen problems like this are those that delay the release date.
"We have to focus on the success of the mission."
And NASA says it will take as long as necessary to get JWST correctly since there is nothing that can be done once the telescope is launched. If the vehicle does not work well in space, NASA has no plans to save it. In addition, the spacecraft has an incredibly complex implementation process. It must be deployed slowly for a couple of weeks to be ready to do its scientific operations, and if one step fails, it could endanger the entire mission. "We have to focus on the success of the mission," Zurbuchen said at today's press conference. "It is the highest imperative of this mission."
While the delays are discouraging, scientists are still behind the telescope, whatever happens, says Tremblay. "The universe is 13.8 billion years old and the community will wait a year or so," he says. "We will be ready to go back in time when this thing is launched."