Arthur J. Villasanta – Fourth Estate Contributor
Washington, DC, United States (4E) – A spate of unwelcome and unnecessary human errors has again delayed the deployment of humankind’s most sophisticated instrument for seeing the edge of the known Universe — the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
NASA announced the launch date scheduled for 2019 has been reset to March 30, 2021. JWST will be launched into space by an Ariane 5 ECA rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. The delay will add $800 million to the space telescope’s $8 billion price tag.
NASA said it will act on the findings and recommendations of an independent review committee that examined the progress toward the launch of the JWST, hence the delay. Experts said delays are inevitable because NASA hasn’t built anything as complicated as the JWST.
Without doubt, JWST is the most complex imaging hardware NASA has attempted to put into space. It features a large mirror consisting of multiple individual segments that have to move seamlessly into place. The entire telescope is protected by a sunscreen that will unfold after launch.
JWST’s primary mirror is consists of 18 hexagonal mirror segments made of gold-coated beryllium. These segments combine to create a mirror with a diameter of 6.5 meters, which compares to the Hubble Space Telescope’s 2.4 meter mirror. The tele
JWST will be deployed in space near the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point. A mammoth sunshield made of five sheets of silicon- and aluminum-coated Kapton will keep JWST’s mirror and four science instruments below 50 K (-220 °C).
JWST’s instruments are 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. All this is incredibly complex engineering.
NASA admits this complexity has caused extensive delays. Early this year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report saying further delays were inevitable. Shortly after the report’s release, NASA disclosed that testing of the spacecraft’s unfolding damaged some of the systems.
This set the stage for an independent review board to examine the program. The board’s review reveals significant dysfunction, and provides 32 recommendations for minimizing the impact of further problems in the future.
The problems stem largely from the work of Northrop Grumman, which is building JWST and its sun shield. Among the human errors revealed was the use of a solvent to clean valves without checking with the valve manufacturer. The improper solvent eventually damaged the valves and forced their replacement.
More seriously, fasteners for the sunscreen weren’t tightened sufficiently prior to testing under simulated launch conditions. Over a dozen of these fasteners came loose and several found their way inside the spacecraft body. NASA estimated these instances alone delayed the launch by six months at the cost of roughly $1 million a day.
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