NASA delays launch of the James Webb space telescope, this time to 2021

Engineers lower a clean tent on the James Webb Space Telescope during the assembly. NASA announced June 27 that the flagship space telscope, the launch will be postponed until March 2021 due to the ongoing technical problems.

(Chris Gunn/NASA)

NASA has delayed the launch of its big, long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope by another 10 months.

The launch of Webb, the successor of the agency of the legendary Hubble Space Telescope, has been pushed back from May 2020 to and including March 2021, NASA officials announced today (June 27). The project is the development of the costs has increased from $8 billion to $8.8 billion, and the total life-cycle price tag now stands at $9.66 billion added.

The reshuffling is the latest in a string of delays for Webb, that NASA had originally hoped to get off the ground way back in 2007. [Photo Tour: Building NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope]

“We have to get this right here on the ground before we go to the space,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference today. “And I just want to emphasize: Webb is worth the wait.”

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Rocky road for a complex observatory

Webb is a multi-purpose observatory that will allow astronomers to study the first stars and galaxies in the universe, hunting for signs of life in the atmosphere of nearby alien planets, and a variety of other high-profile work. The primary mirror is 21.3 feet (6.5 m) wide, compared to 7.8 ft (2.4 m) for that of the Hubble telescope.

“Webb is of vital importance to the next generation of research outside of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “It’s going to do amazing things — things that we have never been able to do before — if we peer into other galaxies, and see the light of the dawn of time.”

Webb is optimized for the view of the sky in infrared light, and the instruments must, therefore, remained very cool. So the telescope will sport a gigantic proprietary sunshield the size of a tennis court, which will unfold after Webb reaches his final destination, a gravitational stable spot about 930,000 miles (1.5 million kilometers from the Earth.

The road to that destination is quite bumpy-to-date. Webb is a very complex observatory that proved to be difficult for the prime contractor Northrop Grumman to build and test, as the repeated delays of witnesses.

Until recently, NASA had focused on an October 2018 launch. In September of last year, but NASA announced that spacecraft integration problems had delayed the launch until the spring of 2019. Then, last March, the agency pushed the scheduled launch date back to May 2020. More time was needed to test Webb’s complex systems and to deal with setbacks, such as small cracks in the proprietary sunshield, NASA officials said at the time.

The agency also has an independent review board (IRB) in March for the monitoring of the observatory of progress and the drafting of recommendations. The IRB has her report to the NASA on May 31, and the agency wrapped its response to that report yesterday (26 June). (You can read both the report and NASA’s response here.)

The IRB run the 29-month delay (of a targeted launch date of October 2018 to March 2021) five factors: human error, “embedded problems,” exaggerated optimism, systems, complexity and a lack of experience in key areas, such as the shadow of a development.

IRB Chairman Tom Young laid out some of the most important human errors during today’s press conference. Technicians used the wrong solvent to clean propulsion valves; working wrong wiring causes excessive voltage to be applied to transducers; and improperly installed proprietary sunshield cover fasteners for a major test, he said.

“All of the simple fixes that were not implemented, resulted in approximately 1.5 years of planning delay, at a cost of approximately $600 million,” said Young, the former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and the former president and chief operating officer of aerospace company Martin Marietta (which merged with Lockheed Corporation in 1995, the formation of Lockheed Martin).

The future

The IRB report was the key to NASA’s latest plan for Webb, agency officials said. Indeed, the review panel made 32 separate recommendations for the observatory development goes ahead, 30 of which NASA fully agrees with Zurbuchen said. (The agency is still working on the other two, he added.)

Crucially, the IRB is not recommended pulling the plug on the telescope.

“With all of the factors I’ve discussed considered, the IRB is of the opinion that JWST should continue, because of the fascinating science, and because of the JWST, the national interest,” Young said.

The bump in the mission is the development of the cost of $8 billion to $8.8 billion could complicate that vision, however, is not. The former song was a cap imposed by Congress, which means that Webb has a different signature from Capitol Hill to go further.

“We put our last ‘breach report’ to the Congress this week,” NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said during today’s press conference. “And then, it is true that the Congress will re-authorize Webb through this next cycle of appropriations.”

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