The James Webb Telescope Is Delayed. Again. Here Are 4 Things to Know About it

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When you’re building the largest and most ambitious space telescope ever made, you have to expect that some things will go wrong.

At least, that seems to be the takeaway from a teleconference held by NASA today about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a 6.5 meter (21 foot)-wide telescope that will observe distant space a million miles from the sun, all kept cool by an origami-folded sunshield the size of a tennis court.

That is, if it ever makes it off the ground.

Based on information from the project’s Standing Review Board (SRB), NASA officials have decided to delay the telescope’s launch window to roughly May 2020. (In 2011, it was supposed to launch in 2018; in September, officials pushed that back to 2019)

Here are four new things you should know about this latest James Webb update, and why we’re going to have to wait a little longer to get its unprecedented new view of the universe. But stay tuned, because it’ll be worth it.

1. The launch delay is about “getting it right”…

The primary cause of the delay: to ensure that NASA is as confident as possible before launch.

Since there will be no way of repairing the JWST if something goes wrong out in space, they want to ensure everything is in the best shape it can be before sending it adrift.

“Simply put, we have one shot to get this right before going into space,” Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), said during today’s press conference. “You’ve heard this before … failure is not an option.”

The recent SRB review evaluated whether JWST would be ready for a May 2020 launch. Its confidence level: 70 percent. That’s a normal level of confidence for a large NASA project, Zurbuchen and his colleagues said, but another upcoming Independent Review Board (IRB) will seek out additional ways to raise that number.

And yeah, potential budgetary issues are a concern, too.

2. …Because things have gone wrong.

Officials are afraid things will go wrong because, in the nearly twenty years that NASA and associated contractors have been building the James Webb, things have.

Some of the most recent delays were associated with errors. Like when they discovered that the sunshield’s tension-creating cables were too slack. This could have created a risk that the cables would snag on something as the sunshield unfolded, keeping it from deploying.

Contractor Northrop Grumman also accidentally put several small tears in the sunshield.

And during tests, scientists discovered that the propulsion system could allow leaks from the telescope’s thruster valves.

The telescope has already gone through considerable testing to make sure it can make it to its million-mile destination and start doing science once it’s there. This year, NASA is planning to do more tests, on individual pieces and the telescope as a whole (once it’s welded together), to ensure it can survive the traumatic journey from Earth to space.

The James Webb sunshield, stacked and unfurled for a full-sized test in 2014 (which it passed). Image Credit: Chris Gunn / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

3. The project’s cost may continue to rise.

Back in 2011, when JWST was slated to launch in 2018, Congress gave the project a cost cap of $ 8 billion. But now, officials think the project might exceed it.

That’s one of the main tasks of the upcoming independent review board — to figure out if the JWST can meet its launch date without going over the target price. At the very least, the project will need at least $ 837 million to operate the telescope after launch.

The good news, at least, is that it doesn’t appear that NASA would consider canceling this massive undertaking at the 11th hour. No one wants to throw away the $ 7.3 billion they’ve already spent.

“This is the definition of ‘sunk cost,’” Grant Tremblay, of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told The Verge. “We’re launching this thing.”

4. The delay could slow down other space projects.

After James Webb gets in motion, NASA’s next priority is supposed to be the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), another massive telescope that promises to make Hubble’s astonishing images of the universe look like blurry flip phone photos.

In 2010, the National Academy of Sciences said the telescope was its number one priority. And now the latest White House budget proposal has already threatened to kill it

The Space Telescopes of Tomorrow [Infographic]
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The scientific community has firmly resisted letting WFIRST go. But if the James Webb ends up over-budget and far past its launch date, the extra money needed to get the JWST into space will come out of WFIRST funds.

At the teleconference, Zurbuchen suggested that the James Webb’s impact on WFIRST will be “more of perception than cost,” that is, that people might simply think WFIRST is less possible because of the Webb delays.

Scientific American reports otherwise, nothhat extra costs will likely delay WFIRST further, and potentially prevent it from operating at the same time as Webb — one of the main reasons for launching it in the first place.

Some experts worry that the reverberations of JWST’s delays could extend even further.

“My fear now is that the community will be so frightened of cost that they won’t recommend any large telescope in the next decadal [survey],” one senior astronomer told Scientific American, speaking under conditions of anonymity. “If NASA doesn’t pursue another big strategic mission after Webb and WFIRST … More likely [that money] will go into rockets to put people on the moon, or to some program outside of NASA entirely. If we’re not careful, this could lead to the end of the golden age of U.S. space astronomy.”

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Technical, Budget Problems Will Delay the James Webb Telescope Again

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Last week, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is facing further delays and difficulties. The highly anticipated telescope will succeed the Hubble Telescope and expand our view of the universe further than ever before. Yet despite this hype and excitement, the JWST has faced a seemingly endless stream of delays.

In September 2017, the JWST launch was delayed from October 2018 to June 2019. Now, because of issues in testing and integrating the telescope’s components, this date has been pushed to an as-yet-unknown data further in the future.

It is no surprise that the JWST will be one of the costliest missions that NASA, alongside Europe and Canada’s space agencies, has ever attempted, as it’s also one of the most complex. The JWST will have a mirror more than three times wider than Hubble’s, and more than 100 times Hubble’s sensitivity. It will unfold and begin transmitting data 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, beyond the reach of repair missions if any of its advanced technologies malfunction. Altogether, the telescope is one of the most ambitious projects any space agency has ever attempted.

It is unclear how much further the James Webb launch date will be pushed back, but another delay is expected due to difficulties mating the telescope with the bus that will carry it to its launch site. If there are any delays beyond this, it’s likely that the project will exceed Congress’s budget cap. It is historically difficult for NASA, and scientific efforts in general, to find sufficient funding. If the project does reach its financial limit, it is uncertain what action Congress might take.

This month, the JWST mission’s Standing Review Board will re-assess the situation and provide a clearer confirmation of the project’s time frame and budgetary requirements. They expect to have a report completed in early April, so we will soon have a better idea of the telescope’s future.

These delays might be disheartening, but as Northrop Grumman’s JWST program manager Scott Willoughby told Science about earlier delays, “It took longer than predicted, but it’s about getting it right.” The “overabundance of caution” Willoughby describes is of the utmost importance. This telescope has been an investment of unparalleled proportions, and its success could forever change how we observe the universe. It would be a shame to rush the process and end up with a revolutionary telescope that doesn’t work.

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What Would Happen if We Cancelled the WFIRST Space Telescope?

Goodbye, WFIRST?

The new White House budget proposal is calling for the cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). The WFIRST Space Telescope is a mission concept that aims to help scientists detect exoplanets, explore dark energy, and find answers to many of life’s mysteries. Some think that the threat of cancellation is a sharp message to the WFIRST mission leaders to reduce operational costs.

However, if this does lead to the cancellation of the WFIRST, it could be a devastating blow to the global astrophysics community, and to progress on the whole.

WFIRST was set to become NASA’s next flagship mission, with a tentative launch set for 2020. It was scheduled to join the ranks of other large-scale flagship missions like the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Space Telescope, and more.

Leading Discovery

The WFIRST would not only aid in the discovery and exploration of planets orbiting other stars in far-off systems; its foray into studying dark energy separates it from other leading telescopes. The WFIRST could allow scientists to answer a host of questions that remain astronomical uncertainties: “What is driving the acceleration of the universe? What are the properties of exoplanet atmospheres? How did our galaxy and its neighbors form and evolve? What determines the architecture of exoplanets? US should be leading the world in addressing these big questions,” posed David Spergel, a physicist at Princeton University and the co-chair of the WFIRST science team, on Twitter.

In the 2010 decadal survey, a survey put out every 10 years by the National Academy of Sciences to guide funding and priorities, the WFIRST mission was listed as the top mission priority. This is true not just for U.S. astronomy, but also for the whole astrophysics community. Without the WFIRST mission, astronomers and astrophysicists might not have access to such tools at all.

“I think it’s a poor decision and an unnecessary one,” Spergel told Space.com. “I see it as abandoning U.S. leadership in space astronomy. Canada, Japan, the European Space Agency, France — they are all ready to partner with us and make contributions to the mission. They join in because they think this is something we’ll do, because it’s our top [decadal survey] priority.”

This move may just be a financial threat. Yet whether or not WFIRST is actually cancelled, it seems to be a concerning display of the White House’s regard towards progress in the astronomical sector.

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NASA Is Testing the Telescope That Will Revolutionize Our View of the Cosmos

Telescope Testing

In 2017, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) successfully completed cryogenic vacuum testing that lasted for over 100 days, solidifying the instrument’s capabilities and potential as a full observatory. In a NASA media briefing on January 10, officials at the Johnson Space Center in Houston discussed these efforts and the magnitude of this successful testing. The “world’s largest space freezer,” as described by Mark Voyton, Webb telescope Optical Telescope Element and Integrated Science Instrument Module (OTIS) manager at Goddard, allowed the team to successfully test the instrument and its pieces at the extreme temperatures it will endure in its missions.

Additionally, this testing showed that all mirrors and instrument models were aligned, with the primary mirror’s 18 segments all operating as one monolithic mirror. The tests also allowed NASA to exercise operations as they would occur in orbit, confirm that the integrated fine guiding system can track a star through the optical system, and ensure that the telescope could maintain correct observatory pointing. This laundry list of successful testing puts the JWST right on schedule to move forward and open our eyes to previously unseen corners of the universe.

The Webb testing was completed in Chamber A, a thermal-vacuum test facility that was first made famous in testing the Apollo spacecraft. While the Apollo tests were completed with both extreme heat and cold in mind, the chamber was heavily modified for the JWST. The Apollo craft were tested at temperatures as low as 100 Kelvin, but with these modifications, testing commenced at temperatures as low as 40 Kelvin with no high-temperature testing.

The success of this testing is not only a significant milestone for the James Webb Space Telescope and its highly-anticipated 2019 launch; it’s also a testament to the human spirit. This cryogenic testing occurred 24/7 throughout Hurricane Harvey, uninterrupted, as its international teams worked together in a collaborative effort.

Moving Forward

After the success of this testing, the JWST will be transported for integration into a complete observatory and to undergo final environmental testing before traveling to its launch site. While there was a delay that pushed the launch from 2018 to 2019, the telescope is currently right on track to successfully make its launch window.

Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope observing the cosmos.
Artist conception of the James Webb Space Telescope observing the cosmos. (Image Credit: Northrop Grumman / NASA)

The capabilities of the JWST will far surpass anything that has been created before. This mammoth telescope, described by Voyton as “the world’s most magnificent time machine,” proved a piece of this capability in testing: it detected, with all four instruments, the light of a simulated star for the first time. The fine guidance subsystem was successful in not only generating the position of the light, but also in tracking its movement. This was a first in testing, and it shows the remarkable applications that this telescope will have.

Because it is an infrared telescope, as opposed to a visual light telescope like Hubble, the James Webb Space Telescope requires a cold environment such as the one it was tested in. This will allow it to observe light from some of the earliest moments of the universe. Additionally, it will give us clarity in viewing exoplanets that we’ve only before dreamed of, closely observing Earth-like planets that could hold the promise of solidifying the existence of extraterrestrial life.

It hasn’t even left Earth yet, but this phenomenal instrument continues to inspire.

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The World’s Newest Massive Radio Telescope Has Made Its First Discovery

A little over a year since its completion, China’s 500-metre Aperture Spherical Telescope (FAST for short) has just made its first confirmed discovery.

Astronomers used the giant dish to spot a pair of pulsars thousands of light years away, heralding big things for what is now the world’s largest single dish radio telescope.

The stars, called PSR J1859-01 and PSR J1931-01, were detected by the telescope back in August, but it took a few extra months until the Parkes telescope in Australia could confirm them as the real deal.

Both objects are dense, rapidly spinning stars surrounded by strong magnetic fields. These fields channel electromagnetic radiation into a beam that describes a circle with every rotation, much like a cosmic lighthouse.

Seen from Earth, the stars seem to pulse with every sweep, giving them their name pulsar. Their positions and timing make for useful landmarks in space, not to mention handy cosmic clocks for testing general relativity.

The pair discovered by FAST – also dubbed FP1 and FP2 – don’t stand out in terms of size, speed, or distance.

Image Credit: Xinhua

“FP1 is a pulsar with a spin period of 1.83 second and an estimated distance of 16 thousand light-years, and FP2, is a pulsar with a spin period of 0.59 second and an estimated distance of 4,100 light years,” says deputy chief engineer of FAST, Li Di.

For a comparison, the fastest pulsar turns on its axis an insane 642 times per second.

In February the European Space Agency found a pulsar that was a thousand times brighter than ever thought possible, 50 million light years away.

But give it a chance – FAST exceeds the 305 metre wide Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico as the largest dish of its kind, so far more impressive discoveries are surely yet to come.

“The two new discovered pulsars symbolise the dawn of a new era of systematic discoveries by Chinese radio telescopes,” says Yan Jun, director of the National Astronomical Observatories of China.

The US$ 185 million facility was built to collect radio waves washing over the planet from the far reaches of deep space, allowing researchers to pick up faint traces of radiation from ancient clouds of hydrogen gas, distant black holes, pulsars, or … just maybe … alien wifi.

The dish sits inside a giant sinkhole in Guizhou Province, southwest China, where limestone has dissolved away to leave a massive depression.

The stats are impressive; 4,450 panels give the dish a collection area of 196,000 square metres (about 2,109,700 square feet), more than doubling Arecibo’s coverage.

A bigger dish can collect more radio waves, which means detecting fainter signals; just the thing we need to see deeper into space, and therefore further back in time.

This hollow amid the surrounding hills provides a natural shelter from more Earthly radio waves, giving FAST a quiet spot to stare at the heavens.

Closer to home, the giant dish could also be used to track spacecraft travelling to Mars as part of China’s burgeoning space program.

China has been making extraordinary leaps in space-based technology in recent years, such as facilitating the first quantum-encrypted satellite link-up just a few weeks ago.

Earlier this year the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation announced it would be conducting a record 30 launches into space this year, maintaining a trend in recent years that could see it meet its goal of landing technology on Mars by 2020.

FAST is just one more example of the nation’s rapid progress in space technology. While it still has a few more tests to conduct to fine tune its processes, it won’t be long before the facility is available to astronomers all over the globe.

We can’t wait to see what else it discovers.

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James Webb Space Telescope Launch Delayed to 2019

Delayed Launch

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the world’s most powerful telescope to date and the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), will have a few extra months before it’s launched into orbit. After the latest check on outstanding technical issues and integration work, NASA pushed back the launch date from October 2018 to between March and June 2019. The delay has to do with the integration of the spacecraft bus and sunshield that will bring the telescope into orbit; a process that is taking more time than predicted. There are no problems with the telescope itself.

“Webb’s spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft,” JWST program director Eric Smith announced with NASA. “The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer. Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systematically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

The 18 gold-plated beryllium mirror segments of the JWST are now being cryogenically tested in NASA’s enormous Chamber A of Houston’s Johnson Space Center. The telescope passed its testing time with flying colors, surviving in space-like conditions with temperatures below -250 C (-420 F), and it is now thawing out so it can be removed from the testing chamber. Next, the JWST will be moved to the Redondo Beach facilities for integration with the spacecraft.

Astronomical Goals

The gold telescope’s massively powerful primary mirror is 6.5 meters in diameter and should be able to perceive objects up to 16 times fainter than the Hubble. It can also collect infrared light, making it possible for astronomers to see further back into space and time than ever before. The JWST will investigate our Solar System’s origins by observing the Trojan asteroids and the three largest low-albedo asteroids. It will also help scientists to protect Earth by exploring near-Earth objects. Also on the agenda for the JWST are investigations of geological phenomena and the atmosphere on Saturn, Neptune’s south polar vortex, and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as well as the potential for life on various far-off exoplanets.

The JWST will be launched by the European Space Agency (ESA), and hopefully, there will be no further delays for the space telescope that “could probably detect a bumblebee on the moon.”

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