“Slip, Slipping Away” –Finish Line for the Planet’s Most Powerful Telescope Getting Further Away

 

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NASA officials say that the JWST can only withstand the failure of about six steps after its new launch date in May of 2020 when the observatory will spend about two weeks unfurling into shape, while making course corrections as it settles into its orbit around the sun involving about 180 deployments. And, unlike Hubble, the JWST was not built to receive repair crews, and at nearly 1 million miles from Earth, it’s too far for astronauts to reach. Mistakes on the ground, NASA underscores, are far easier to deal with than errors in space.


The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the famed Hubble, has now been pushed back about a year, from spring 2019 to May 2020, NASA officials said Tuesday making this the second in six months for the Webb, an ambitious, $8.8 billion project two decades in the making.

 

The new delay is perilous for the Webb project, risking spending more money than its allocated total of $8 billion for the development-and-construction phase of the mission. And the longer the end phase takes, the more it will cost. “We don’t really fully know what the exact cost will be,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, during a press teleconference Tuesday, but “if we go one dollar over, we will be in a breach condition.” If that happens, NASA will need to receive renewed authorization from Congress to move forward.

“Frankly, the tasks are taking longer to complete than we expected,” said Robert Lightfoot, who has served as NASA’s acting administrator since the start of the Trump administration. NASA said Tuesday the delay was caused by a mix of “avoidable technical errors” and estimates for testing that proved too optimistic.

 

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The Webb Space Telescope, once completed, will be a complex amalgamation of several parts reports The Atlantic. There are the 18 gleaming, gold-plated mirrors that will allow the space observatory to pick up on the faint light of the most distant stars and galaxies. There’s an instrument module, which contains four scientific devices to process what the mirrors see. And there’s what NASA calls the spacecraft element, which consists of a five-layer, tennis-court-sized sun shield that will help Webb cool down enough to work, along with a spacecraft bus, which will house the observatory’s computer systems and solar panels.

The hardware for the telescope elements—the mirrors, the scientific instruments—is all done and has undergone rigorous testing to ensure it can survive both a violent rocket launch into orbit and the extreme conditions of space. The problems seem to stem from the spacecraft element. The sun shield and bus are being developed by Northrop Grumman, the mission’s contractor, and it doesn’t sound like it’s gone well. There were also errors in testing of the propulsion systems, some of which led to leaks “as well as other mishandling of these systems.”

NASA officials said Tuesday that the sun shield developed too much slack, which created “a snagging hazard.” Several tears, some as big as four inches across, appeared on the shield and had to be repaired. Springs were added to ensure the sun shield wouldn’t sag. “I can’t say for sure whether they would or would not have caused deployment concerns in orbit,” said Dennis Andrucyk, the deputy associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. “But there is that risk.”

Officials also said they overestimated how long it would take to practice the deployment sequence of the Webb, which will launch curled up and then unfurl once in orbit. A process they expected to require two weeks, for example, ended up taking a month.

Nasa announced some measures they would take at Northrop Grumman’s facility in California, where all of Webb’s parts currently reside. The space agency said they will increase engineering oversight at the facility in Redondo Beach and will track the company’s test reports on a weekly basis. Senior management from nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, where much of the telescope was constructed, will work out of Northrop Grumman’s offices on a permanent basis. Northrop Grumman’s project manager for Webb will report directly to C-suite level executives at the company “to help remove roadblocks to success within the company,” the officials said.

Altogether, these small fixes point to a big problem. Some of the issues with the Webb project, they suggest, are the fault of Northrup Grumman. The gao report suggested as much last month, saying that for several years “the prime contractor has overestimated workforce reductions, and technical challenges have prevented these planned reductions, necessitating the use of cost reserves.”

To get Webb to the finish line, nasa seems to have decided it has to get more involved in its contractor’s operations than ever before.

Northrop Grumman said in a statement the company “remains steadfast in its commitment to nasa and ensuring successful integration, launch and deployment” of Webb.

Testing the space observatory is still yet to be completed, and is expected to take a few months The spacecraft element—the sun shield and the bus—still has to undergo the same kind of environmental testing that the telescope element already experienced. The process Engineers will then put Webb all together and test it as one, making sure that all components work.

There is little doubt that the JWST will launch someday. NASA has already spent $7.3 billion on the project, so to kill the space telescope now, after 20 years, would be to waste all that money not to mention conceding our space leadership to the ESA and China.

The Daily Galaxy via NASA, Nature, and The Atlantic

 

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