NASA JWST delayed until mid-2020: Failure is not an option

Looks like NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will be delayed until mid-2020. There will likely be budget overruns which threaten the life of the mission.

8071 Views | Published on 27th Mar, 2018

Hello Space Fans and welcome to a new formatted episode of Space Fans News. After a lot of advice, some of it we didn’t ask for, we’ve decided here at SFN, to try a new approach: one story per episode and more episode postings. In this episode: NASA announced today that the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, is now officially the Just Wait Space Telescope: it will not launch before May 2020.

After an independent review of the JWST mission by the Government Accounting Office earlier this year, NASA has announced that there will be more delays in the project. There two main components to the flight hardware: the first is the observatory, the optics and science instrumentation and the second is the massive sun shield and the spacecraft bus.

The observatory has been completed and fully tested (remember I told you about that late last year) and the sun shield and spacecraft bus is complete and currently undergoing testing.

Both of these components are in California at the Northrop-Grumman facility where they are going to be put together into one giant, fully assembled space telescope and made ready to put on a barge to travel to the launch port in French Guiana.

The rocket will be an Arianne V operated by the European Space Agency, where you’ve all by now seen the origami that has to happen to get this to fit in a rocket.

Well the problems announced today that have caused this delay is with the testing of the sunshield. The deploying and re-folding of the five giant radiators took a really, really long time, way longer than they thought.

There are a total of three deploy, fold and stow operations planned to make sure the thing unfolds properly and the first deployment was expected to take two weeks, instead it took a month.

The fold and stow operation was expected to take a month and instead it took two months.

And the sunshield tensioning system became too slack during deployment and became a snagging danger and had to be adjusted.

During testing, seven small tears developed during the testing and there were propellant leaks found in the propelling system.

So all of these things conspired to these delays in the launch and NASA is now saying that to reach the 70 percent confidence level that everything in the mission will go successfully, they need more time. They feel like they can get there by May 2020.

Why 70 percent and not 90 or 100 percent? Well those confidence levels take time and cost money. 100 percent is not achievable, and 90 percent confidence level would delay the launch into the late 2020’s. 70 percent is sort an agreed target for large missions like this.

Remember, this is an all or nothing mission. As for myself, while I am as disappointed as you are, this is a very complex telescope, so many things have to work perfectly to pull this off. It is way better to take longer testing and pick up problems than rushing out a broken observatory into orbit.

We’ve heard this before when it comes to things with NASA: failure is not an option.

So, what does all this mean besides waiting? Well the biggest threat is that it is almost certain that the mission will go past the 8 billion dollar mark. If they spend one dollar over then Congress will either need to allocate more money, or they shut down the project completely. This is what happened when Congress had to choose between the ISS and the Superconducting Supercollider in the early 90’s.

As to what the final cost of JWST will be, they are still working it out, but it will almost certainly go over the 8 billion dollar limit set by Congress. They expect to have a new cost analysis report very soon.

This delay also means that the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) will have completed it’s two year all-sky survey to find the best transiting planets before JWST even begins science operations.

No one knows for sure how much longer the Hubble Space Telescope will be around but this delay makes it more likely that it won’t be around to work side by side with JWST, although everything is still operating nominally on HST.

I’m starting to come around to the idea that maybe some of these project: JWST, WFIRST, LUVOIR and others may be a bit too ambitious. It’s one thing to be completely innovative with inventing new technologies and literally reaching for the stars, but in this case perhaps NASA has bitten off more than it can chew.

I tell you, I’d hate to be Northrop-Grumman right now. This is the company responsible for the final stages of getting everything together. You can be sure NASA is going to be up in NG’s grill from now till May 2020 making sure everything goes smoothly.

Well that’s it for this episode Space Fans. Let me know if you like this format for SFN better in the comments and likes below. If you like it, I may be able to post several a month and keep each episode to under five minutes or so.

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