NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launch set back to 2021

NASA announced yesterday that its highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope is delaying its launch — again.

It was announced in March that the mission would be delayed until 2020, which is already two years past its original launch date in October 2018. But after accepting the recommendations of an independent review board, NASA has announced that the launch has been rescheduled for early 2021.

According to the report, technical issues and human error have “greatly impacted the development schedule” and added an extra $800 million to the already $8 billion budget approved by Congress.

For a mission that’s been deemed NASA’s “next big telescope,” it’s not surprising there’d be a few bumps in the road.

The telescope’s honeycombed structure of (literally) gold-plated mirrors will help scientists see further into the history of our universe than has ever been possible before. Following in the footsteps of the Hubble Telescope, Webb will have improved “sight” thanks to its abilities to see longer wavelengths, like infrared. By peering beyond the visible spectrum of light, there’s literally no telling what Webb might learn about the birth of the universe. And that’s kind of the reason NASA’s building it.

“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, in a report yesterday.

If that’s not enough pressure, the Webb (unlike the Hubble) will be too far away from Earth to be serviceable by either manned or robotic missions. So, when Webb finally reaches its orbit and unfurls (another tricky maneuver) there’s no going back.

While this mission represents an exciting new opportunity to explore deeper into space, NASA and other federally funded space agencies aren’t the only game in town any more. Billionaires like Yuri Milner, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are taking on the challenge in the private sector and designing new methods, crafts and rockets to explore this final frontier with a little more flexibility than NASA.

In addition to the obvious technical challenges of the Webb project, NASA has also run into problems with its primary contractor, Northrop Grumman . After encountering problems earlier this year successfully installing Webb’s sun shield, Northrop Grumman was also cited in yesterday’s report for “performance challenges” on the mission’s propulsion systems.

With NASA’s growing to-do list before Webb finally launches, it might still be awhile before we get to see the universe’s baby pictures.

Webb Space Telescope pushed back again, won’t launch until 2021

Today, NASA announced that it accepted the findings and recommendations of an independent review of progress toward the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, intended to be NASA’s next great observatory. As a result of some changed procedures and reigning in some unjustified schedule optimism, the changes will mean that Webb won’t be launched until March of 2021, a delay that will tack on $800 million to the telescope’s $8 billion price tag.

Complexity and errors

The James Webb Space Telescope would be the most complex imaging hardware that NASA has attempted to put into space. It features a large mirror that will be formed by multiple individual segments moving into place and protected by a sunscreen that would also unfold after launch. Webb’s instruments would be sensitive to a region of the infrared that should allow it to image everything from the Universe’s first galaxies to the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets.

But so far, that complexity has driven extensive delays. Early this year, the Government Accountability Office released a report that suggested that further delays were inevitable. And shortly after its release, NASA disclosed that testing of the spacecraft’s unfolding resulted in damage to some of the systems. That set the stage for an independent review board to give the entire project a new look.

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With its mirror complete, giant space telescope on track for 2018 launch

After years of delays and cost overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope is finally coming together. This week the 18th and final primary mirror segment of the telescope was installed onto the support structure at Goddard Space Flight Center. From here, additional optics must be installed, and the telescope requires testing to ensure it can withstand the forces of a rocket launch anticipated in late 2018.

Each of the hexagon-shaped mirrors weighs 40 kg and spans 1.3 meters. After launch, the telescope will be flown to the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system, about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. From there, it will begin observations. When deployed in space, the telescope will have a 6.5-meter diameter.

“Completing the assembly of the primary mirror is a very significant milestone and the culmination of over a decade of design, manufacturing, testing, and now assembly of the primary mirror system,” said Lee Feinberg, optical telescope element manager at Goddard. “There is a huge team across the country who contributed to this achievement.”

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What’s after Webb? Maybe a 12-meter space telescope

NEW YORK—On Monday, a group of astronomers revealed a new report that lays the groundwork for space-based astronomy after the James Webb Space Telescope ends its time as a functional observatory. The report calls for a next-generation telescope that covers the same wavelengths as the Hubble—UV to near infrared—while carrying specialized planet-imaging hardware. But the real jaw-dropper is the size of the primary mirror: 12 meters, or larger than some of the biggest of the current generation of Earth-bound telescopes.

The telescope, currently going by High Definition Space Telescope (HDST), wouldn’t launch until the late 2030s at the earliest, which seems like a lot of lead time. But Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, said that the first report to look beyond the Hubble was produced in 1996. The James Webb won’t be sent to orbit before 2018. Thus, there’s a lot of lead time required for projects of this nature.

While the project might seem audacious, it’s relatively conservative. All of the technologies required to get it to work are already under development or working at a smaller scale. For example, the HDST will use the same segmented mirror design as the Webb, but the segments will each be larger, and there will be an extra ring of them. The 12-meter size is set by the internal diameter of the fairings of a Delta IV Heavy; any bigger and, in the words of the University of Washington’s Julianne Dalcanton, “it’s like that last suitcase in the overhead bin—you just can’t get it in.”

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