This week NASA announced further delays to the James Webb Space Telescope which was originally supposed to launch this year and has now been delayed to Now Earlier Than (NET) 2021.
The delays which have been caused by several factors from human error during construction/testing, design complexity and basically poor management of the project are now causing some people to rename the spacecraft the Just Wait Space Telescope.
There is no doubt that if/when the spacecraft is launched and successfully reaches its final operating orbit that it will provide amazing new images of our universe and increase our knowledge of the universe.
However, with these continual delays, there are some additional factors that need to be considered.
– JWST is designed to launch on an Ariane 5 which is due to be phased out by Arianespace sometime in 2021-22. If there are further delays to JWST then Arianespace will need to maintain the launch pad at Kourou for the launch. There have been discussions about using other rockets but the design changes needed to accommodate could delay it even further.
– The manufacturer Northrop Grumman are operating under a cost-plus contract for JWST, therefore, the taxpayer is on the hook for any additional costs which are already predicted to pass $9.6 billion dollars assuming a launch date of March 2021.
– Other missions are waiting on the data from JWST, with the abilities that JWST brings to the table there are a lot of other future missions that are being designed to utilize the data that is returned. With these delays, these missions may also be impacted both in funding and having to wait for the new data.
Once the vehicle is launched the deployment process is not a simple one and while NG and NASA have done extensive testing (some of which has led to the latest delays) there is no guarantee that it will be 100% successful once in space. The biggest concern is the fact that the massive sun shield is needed to keep the telescope operating at the correct temperature and if there are any issues during deployment, like ripping that happened during testing, then it will not be able to do that and the telescope will pretty much be useless.
Additionally, due to the width of the main mirror, it has to be folded too and then the side segments have to deploy correctly. If this process fails then the telescope will not be able to operate correctly as there will be 6 mirror segments missing.
Due to its final orbit at the Lagrangian point (L2) it is not currently possible to service the telescope, therefore if anything goes wrong there isn’t anything that can be done. At some point in the future, it may be possible to send a crew out to the L2 but that is still quite a way off.
Yes JWST is a complex spacecraft and a lot has to go correctly during testing, during launch and once in orbit. If it is all successful and the spacecraft makes it to its operating orbit then the science it returns will be amazing but until then we just have to continue to wait and hope that nothing else goes wrong.