NASA Prepares to Launch Next Mission to Search Sky for New Worlds

29 March, 2018, 02:29 | Author: Bertha Harmon
  • Illustration of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope

One of ESA's Ariane 5 rockets will eventually fire JWST into an orbit around a million miles from Earth. When the James Webb Space Telescope does finally begin operating, it will offer unparalleled views of the universe that could help us study exoplanets, star formation, and more.

"Webb's previously revised 2019 launch window now is targeted for approximately May 2020".

The NASA authorities defined business modifications in work with the telescope, consisting of applying even more NASA oversight of the job at Northrop Grumman.

Launching a project of this size and scope will be an wonderful achievement, but it is not without its challenges.

"Webb is the highest priority project for the agency's Science Mission Directorate, and the largest global space science project in USA history", said Robert Lightfoot, NASA's Acting Administrator, "All the observatory's flight hardware is now complete, however, the issues brought to light with the spacecraft element are prompting us to take the necessary steps to refocus our efforts on the completion of this ambitious and complex observatory".

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The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to succeed Hubble, continues to accumulate delays and additional costs.

Specifically, NASA said testing of the telescope element and spacecraft element demonstrated that each system individually meets their requirements.

JWST will take about 30 days from launch to reach its final orbit.

Nevertheless, the telescope already has its primary mirror and other required instruments completed.

The delay could also affect the next astrophysics decadal survey, the report prepared by the astronomy community once per decade to determine priorities for space and ground-based observatories.

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Officials say the cost may exceed the $8 billion (£5.6 billion) program cap set by Congress. The project's standing review board predicted with 70 per cent confidence that, with further tests, the telescope will be ready to launch in May 2020.

Delays in testing the sunshield and problems with the in-space propulsion system have slowed work. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission Directorate state "we have one shot to get this right before going into space".

Where does the project stand now? The joining of the telescope and science payload element to the spacecraft element this year will be a "pivotal" milestone for the observatory, says NASA.

All the testing is crucial because JWST will operate from an orbit about 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, where it can not be serviced by astronauts as the Hubble Space Telescope was.

NASA is now establishing an Independent Review Board led by Thomas Young, who has extensive experience both with NASA and the spaceflight industry. During testing of the sunshield's folding process and subsequent deployment sequence, it was found that tears developed and the sunshield's tensioning cables had to be redesigned, as the original design left too much slack. Based on this information, and findings from previous boards, NASA will present an assessment of the project, including a more specific launch date, to Congress this summer.

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Under provisions of recent appropriations bills, including a fiscal year 2018 appropriations bill signed into law March 23, any overrun beyond the $8 billion cap is treated as the equivalent of a 30 percent overrun under federal law.

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