James Webb Telescope sun shield snags, further launch delays likely
The telescope project now has just 1.5 months of schedule reserve.
A new report on the James Webb Space Telescope has found that ongoing technical issues with final testing and assembly of the $8.8 billion project will probably cause the launch date of the oft-delayed instrument to slip again to the right. Presently, NASA is targeting June 2019 for launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket.
The US Government Accountability Office published the report on Wednesday. It concluded, "Given several ongoing technical issues, and the work remaining to test the spacecraft element and complete integration of the telescope and spacecraft, combined with continuing slower-than-planned work at Northrop Grumman, we believe that the rescheduled launch window is likely unachievable."
The report catalogs a number of issues that Northrop Grumman has dealt with during the integration process, particularly the technical challenges and workforce issues needed to meet them. For example, the report cites a worrying problem that cropped up during one of the tests to deploy the telescope's essential sunshield—one of its six membrane tensioning systems experienced a potentially crippling "snag."
Moreover, last year the contractor found that eight of 16 valves in the spacecraft's thrusters were leaking beyond acceptable levels. Although it could not conclusively determine the cause of the leak, Northrop Grumman ultimately determined that this was most likely caused by technician handling errors. The thruster modules had to be individually investigated, refurbished, and re-attached, which contributed months of delays to the schedule.
All of this has left the telescope project with just 1.5 months of schedule reserve. In recognition of this urgency, Northrop Grumman has, according to the report, increased its daily work shifts from two to three, and teams are now working 24 hours per day on spacecraft integration.
This 24-hour-a-day work means that it will not be possible for Northrop Grumman to pour more people into the telescope should further technical issues arise, which the GAO report suggests is likely due to the nature of such a complex project. Moreover, Northrop Grumman had intended to begin to scale back its workforce last year, but due to the problems, it has yet to significantly cut back.
As a result, the James Webb Space Telescope is now perilously short on schedule margin, and with further delays likely and contractor workforce costs still high, it may very well exceed its Congressionally mandated cost cap. The telescope's managing board will soon meet, the report says, and will determine whether the June 2019 launch date can still be met.
NASA’s James Webb Observatory Prepares for Additional Testing
Engineers removed the combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope from their shipping container in a high bay at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, on March 8, signaling the next step in the observatory’s integration and testing.
Northrop is the final step of Webb’s journey before it travels to its launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Engineers will conduct final testing at the facility to ensure the observatory is ready for space. Webb’s combined optics and science instruments, the science payload, is the half of the observatory that includes Webb’s iconic, 6.5-meter (21.3-foot), golden primary mirror. The science payload recently arrived at Northrop after testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The integrated spacecraft and sunshield — the other half of the observatory, which is in final assembly at Northrop — will soon undergo its own launch environment tests to prove it is ready to be combined with the science payload. Then, additional testing will be performed to guarantee the fully assembled observatory will successfully operate in its orbit at the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2).
The science payload was already separately proven to be able to withstand the rigors of launch and operate as expected at cryogenic temperatures through tests last year at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and at Johnson. Making sure every element of Webb functions correctly before it gets to space is critical, because at that orbit it will be beyond the reach of any servicing missions.
“Extensive and rigorous testing prior to launch has proven effective in ensuring that NASA’s missions achieve their goals in space,” said Eric Smith, program director for Webb at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “Webb is far along into its testing phase and has seen great success with the telescope and science instruments, which will deliver the spectacular results we anticipate.”
These final tests at Northrop are critical to making sure the fully assembled observatory deploys and operates as expected in space. Deployment is the most critical part of Webb’s journey to L2. To reach space, the telescope must fold origami-style inside its Ariane 5 rocket for launch. Once in space and detached from the rocket’s payload adaptor, Webb will unfold its sunshield and deploy its mirrors, including its highly complex primary mirror. It will be the first space telescope to complete such an intricate process.
Opening Webb’s tennis court-sized, five-layered sunshield is one of the most technically challenging parts of deployment. The sunshield must delicately fold around the telescope for launch and then carefully open in space. Opening the sunshield requires that about 100 actuators, tiny motors that control the delicate motions of deployment, correctly fire. The sunshield must deploy successfully to ensure the mirrors and science instruments of Webb stay cold enough to be able to detect the extremely faint light of far-away planets, stars and galaxies.
“Test, test and retest”
Meticulous testing ensures Webb’s success. Webb has presented novel challenges, requiring innovative solutions from the multidisciplinary teams of engineers and scientists who have contributed to the international endeavor.
Webb is the largest international space science project in U.S. history and one of the highest priority science projects within NASA. The most complex and largest space telescope ever built, Webb will answer some of the most fundamental questions we have about the origins of the universe. Webb’s many intricate systems are more complex than those of most spacecraft, and so the telescope requires thorough testing on the ground to ensure it will operate as expected in space and be able to fulfill its science mission far from Earth.
Building a complex observatory that is designed to deploy and operate in space presents several challenges. Webb’s optics and science instruments will operate at cryogenic temperatures in space, but they had to be built at room temperature on Earth. Webb’s mirrors had to be precisely polished and formed so they will achieve the correct shape when they cool in space. The sunshield will deploy in a zero gravity environment, but all deployment tests on Earth must contend with our planet’s gravity.
“At NASA, we do the seemingly impossible every day, and it's our job to do the hardest things humankind can think of for space exploration,” said Smith. “The way we achieve success is to test, test and retest, so we understand the complex systems and verify they will work.”
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier infrared space observatory of the next decade. Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Engineers lift the combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope after removing it from the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, on March 8, 2018. Webb’s science payload and spacecraft (which includes the sunshield that is also pictured here in its folded state) will be combined at Northrop before launch.
Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
Engineers open the interior tent frame of the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, on March 8, 2018, to reveal its precious cargo — the combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.
Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn
The sunshield of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sits deployed inside a cleanroom at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, in October 2017.
Credits: Northrop Grumman
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope Optics and Science Instruments in Northrop Grumman’s Clean Room
REDONDO BEACH, Calif. – March 12, 2018 – All the major elements of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope now reside in a giant clean room at Northrop Grumman Corporation’s (NYSE: NOC) Redondo Beach facility, setting the stage for final assembly and testing of the giant space telescope that will explore the origins of the universe and search for life beyond our solar system.
The optical telescope and integrated science instrument module (OTIS) arrived at Northrop Grumman in February. It was previously at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it successfully completed cryogenic testing.
OTIS and the spacecraft element, which is Webb’s combined sunshield and spacecraft bus, now both call Northrop Grumman home. Webb is scheduled to launch from Kourou, French Guiana in 2019.
The James Webb Space Telescope is the world’s premier space observatory of the next decade. Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.
Quelle: NORTHROP GRUMMAN
NASA Hosts Media Teleconference on Status of James Webb Space Telescope
NASA will host a media teleconference at 11:30 a.m. EDT Tuesday, March 27, to provide an update on the agency’s James Webb Space Telescope – what will be the world’s premier infrared space observatory and the biggest astronomical space science telescope ever built. Audio of the call will stream live on NASA’s website.
The briefing participants are:
Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot
Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) Thomas Zurbuchen
Deputy Associate Administrator of SMD Dennis Andrucyk
To participate in the call, media must send their name, affiliation and phone number to Felicia Chou at firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 11 a.m. March 27.
The most technically demanding and powerful space observatory ever developed, Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb will complement the scientific discoveries of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other science missions. Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
NASA’s Webb Observatory Requires More Time for Testing and Evaluation; New Launch Window Under Review
NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope currently is undergoing final integration and test phases that will require more time to ensure a successful mission. After an independent assessment of remaining tasks for the highly complex space observatory, Webb’s previously revised 2019 launch window now is targeted for approximately May 2020.
“Webb is the highest priority project for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, and the largest international space science project in U.S. history. 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,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.
Testing the hardware on the observatory’s telescope element and spacecraft element demonstrate that these systems individually meet their requirements. However, recent findings from the project’s Standing Review Board (SRB) indicate more time is needed to test and integrate these components together and then perform environmental testing at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California, the project’s observatory contractor.
NASA is establishing an external Independent Review Board (IRB), chaired by Thomas Young, a highly respected NASA and industry veteran who is often called on to chair advisory committees and analyze organizational and technical issues. The IRB findings, which will complement the SRB data, are expected to bolster confidence in NASA’s approach to completing the final integration and test phase of the mission, the launch campaign, commissioning, as well as the entire deployment sequence. Both boards’ findings and recommendations, as well as the project’s input, will be considered by NASA as it defines a more specific launch time frame. NASA will then provide its assessment in a report to Congress this summer.
NASA will work with its partner, ESA (European Space Agency), on a new launch readiness date for the Ariane 5 vehicle that will launch Webb into space. Once a new launch readiness date is determined, NASA will provide a cost estimate that may exceed the projected $8 billion development cost to complete the final phase of testing and prepare for launch. Additional steps to address project challenges include increasing NASA engineering oversight, personnel changes, and new management reporting structures.
This is a pivotal year for Webb when the 6.5-meter telescope and science payload element will be joined with the spacecraft element to form the complete observatory. The spacecraft element consists of the tennis-court-sized sunshield, designed by Northrop Grumman, and the spacecraft bus, which houses the flight avionics, power system, and solar panels. Because of Webb’s large size, engineers had to design components that fold origami-style into the Ariane 5 rocket’s fairing configuration.
Webb has already completed an extensive range of tests to ensure it will safely reach its orbit at nearly one million miles from Earth and perform its science mission. As with all NASA projects, rigorous testing takes time, increasing the likelihood of mission success.
“Considering the investment NASA and our international partners have made, we want to proceed systematically through these last tests, with the additional time necessary, to be ready for a May 2020 launch,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
After the successful test performance of Webb’s telescope and science payload in 2017 at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston, the telescope element was delivered to Northrop Grumman earlier this year. Both halves of the 13,500-pound observatory now are together in the same facility for the first time.
The spacecraft element will next undergo environmental testing, subjecting it to the vibrational, acoustic and thermal environments it will experience during its launch and operations. These tests will take a few months to complete. Engineers then will integrate and test the fully assembled observatory and verify all components work together properly.
Webb is an international project led by NASA with its partners, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency. ESA is providing the Ariane 5 as part of its scientific collaboration with NASA.
The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world’s premier infrared space observatory and the biggest astronomical space science telescope ever built, complementing the scientific discoveries of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and other science missions. Webb will solve mysteries of our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it.
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Slips to 2020, and Astronomy Suffers
Damaged thrusters and a torn sunshield are keeping the telescope grounded perhaps until May 2020—and throwing astronomy and astrophysics into turmoil
For more than a generation, astronomers have been waiting for the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s successor to the iconic Hubble Space Telescope. On Tuesday they learned they will have to wait even longer, as agency officials revealed Webb’s launch date has slipped from spring of 2019 to approximately May 2020—a delay that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars, breaching the $8.8-billion telescope’s Congressionally mandated cost cap and requiring legislators to either provide more funding or abandon the project.
The delay also jeopardizes the next decadal survey, a once-every-10-years strategic plan produced by the National Academies that assesses the research landscape and makes recommendations to federal agencies and Congress about developing and funding future generations of ground- and space-based telescopes. Originally scheduled for completion after Webb had launched and begun science operations, the survey’s next iteration may instead now occur while Webb, arguably its most important consideration, is still on the ground.
The slip is not exactly surprising, even though construction and testing of Webb’s primary mirror and scientific instruments—its riskiest, most expensive elements—is already complete. These components were delivered in early February to Webb’s prime contractor, the aerospace company Northrop Grumman, for further testing and integration with the rest of the telescope. But later that month a report from the Government Accountability Office warned the company had fallen behind schedule on the supposedly easier parts of the observatory. Valves on the spacecraft’s thrusters had sprung leaks after being improperly cleaned, and replacing them had taken the better part of a year. Webb’s tennis-court-size, five-layer folding “sunshield” had also been torn during a test as it unfurled, requiring time-consuming failure analyses and repairs.
“Webb is the highest priority project for the agency’s science mission directorate, and the largest international space science project in U.S. history,” said acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who is retiring from the agency next month. “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.”
Tim Paynter, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman, says the company “remains steadfast in its commitment to NASA and ensuring successful integration, launch and deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope, the world’s most advanced space telescope.”
Northrop Grumman now reportedly has teams working on the telescope 24 hours a day, and they will soon be joined by additional personnel from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the Webb project. Still, the setbacks have deferred Northrop Grumman’s most crucial final tests, which expose Webb’s components to a harsh vacuum like that of space and jostle the fully assembled telescope in a simulated rocket launch. “It is taking longer than anybody thought a year ago,” says John Mather, an astrophysicist and Webb’s senior project scientist at NASA Goddard. “But we have to do it right. We have built just about everything. We just have to make sure it will work way up there. No taking chances.”
Conceived nearly three decades ago in the aftermath of Hubble’s debut, Webb (like its predecessor) has long been intended as a technological tour de force that would make the next giant leap in our understanding of the universe. Unlike Hubble, which resides in low Earth orbit and has been kept alive by repeated servicing missions, Webb would be stationed beyond the orbit of the moon and cooled nearly to absolute zero by its sunshield. Its mission would last until it runs out of fuel in five to 10 years. From its lofty perch Webb’s sophisticated infrared instruments and giant 6.5-meter mirror would see what Hubble never could: the universe’s very first stars and galaxies, embryonic star systems mid-formation in cosmic wombs of gas and dust, and the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars. For astronomers these horizon-expanding views are so vital for progress that Webb has become the keystone for their field’s long-term future: Take it away, and all plans built around it collapse.
“The dominance of a single mission like Webb can be a bad thing,” says astrophysicist Martin Elvis, a noted critic of budget-busting space missions at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It fosters a ‘too big to fail’ syndrome, where because it mustn’t fail you can’t realistically threaten it with cancellation, and people err on the side of caution to ensure it will succeed. More caution means more testing and more money, which you must provide to avoid failure, and so you get a feedback loop of inflating costs.” And Webb could still end up blown to smithereens or at the bottom of the ocean due to a launch failure, or drifting uselessly in space due to snags in its carefully choreographed deployment sequence. Rocketry may be a science, but it remains decidedly imperfect.
As early as the 2000 decadal survey, U.S. astronomers ranked Webb as their highest priority for the first 10 years of the new millennium. The telescope’s projected cost was then roughly a billion dollars. Yet by the next survey in 2010 the project had already spent $3.5 billion on developing a host of necessary and expensive new technologies. Webb had effectively become too big to fail, and the 2010 Decadal Survey had no choice but to embrace it. It also recommended several other projects—chief among them the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST)—to overlap with and complement Webb, the field’s crown jewel, which was then planned to launch around 2014.
Shortly after the 2010 Decadal Survey, however, independent reviews found the Webb project in crisis. It was burning through its budget so fast that crucial work to build the telescope was being pushed back, causing future costs to balloon for lack of immediate funds. NASA and Congress intervened, resuscitating the project with a “re-plan” that gave it a larger budget capped at $8 billion (plus $837 million in operational costs once in space) and a launch date of October 2018. But in September 2017 NASA announced Webb’s launch would be delayed until spring 2019, due to Northrop Grumman’s mounting woes and scheduling problems with European launch provider Arianespace.
Prompted by Webb’s damaged thrusters and sunshield, the latest delay to May 2020 is based on the findings of another independent review helmed by NASA’s Paul McConnaughey, an associate director of the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center. Officials involved with the project believe that if this delay breaches Webb’s cost cap, it will likely only do so by at most a few percentage points. Even so, the pressure for Webb to meet its new launch date while incurring minimal additional costs is so great that NASA has taken the unusual step of forming a second independent review, led by former NASA Goddard head Thomas Young, to determine if Webb can meet its latest launch date without breaching its cost cap.
Testifying to Congress in December 2017, Young offered what some insiders see as a ringing endorsement of the project—and what others less charitably view as a blank check for Northrop Grumman and “too big to fail” syndrome: “[Webb] is at a point in its development where the only criterion that is important is mission success,” Young said. “Every appropriate thing that can be done to maximize the probability of success should be done. At this stage of the project, a few extra days or weeks or even months of schedule delay or the expenditure of some additional dollars is a small price to pay to assure success of a mission as important as [Webb].”
Meanwhile, WFIRST—NASA’s planned successor to Webb and the highest priority of the 2010 Decadal Survey—has experienced tumult of its own, suffering moderate delays and cost growth. It drew the ire of the Trump administration, which proposed canceling it entirely in the White House’s FY 2019 budget; Congress and the space science community have so far stood firm against that proposal. Anticipating budgets that will be effectively flat for the foreseeable future, NASA officials have stated any overruns on Webb are likely to be paid for out of WFIRST’s coffers. That in turn would lead to further delays and cost growth for the latter mission, potentially preventing it from operating contemporaneously with Webb—one of the original justifications for its existence.
David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University and co-chair of the WFIRST science team, acknowledges the trade is probably worth making. “Webb is one of the most complex engineering projects ever done and the most complicated science mission ever built by NASA,” he says. “We are all disappointed; so many of us are eagerly awaiting Webb’s science. However, it is better to have a modest delay and a modest overrun (as a fraction of Webb’s cost) and have a successful mission.”
Other influential astronomers begrudgingly agree. “You’re never happy when any mission slips, because it means the next thing will slip inevitably, too,” says Marcia Rieke, an astrophysicist at the University of Arizona. Rieke is the principal investigator of Webb’s NIRCam instrument, as well as the co-chair of the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, a body that along with NASA, the National Science Foundation and the National Academies’ Space Studies Board helps plan the decadal surveys.
The troubles surrounding Webb and WFIRST, Rieke says, could delay the next such survey, which would at minimum throw off the timing for those of other fields—particularly the next decadal survey planned for planetary science. Or the survey for astronomy might continue on schedule without knowing whether Webb will be successful, particularly if it treats the troubled telescopes as first and foremost a cautionary tale against similarly ambitious future missions. “The decadal is meant to be a measure of what’s actually achievable,” Rieke says. “And so it walks a fine line between pushing the envelope and being feasible.”
In other words, the easiest solution might be for the next decadal survey to simply proceed as planned and to recommend that NASA pursue a portfolio of smaller, cheaper space telescopes rather than more multibillion-dollar behemoth in the 2020s. That prospect sends chills down the spines of some astronomers, who hope to build even bigger space telescopes using the new technologies developed at such great cost for Webb. They hope these bigger projects might be able to directly image Earth-like planets around nearby stars in search of signs of life.
“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,” says one senior astronomer, who asked not to be named due to the politically sensitive nature of the situation. “That would delay starting anything big until 2030. It would probably be 2050 before something ambitious could be built and launched. This idea that money is transferable between mission sizes is just wrong. If NASA doesn’t pursue another big strategic mission after Webb and WFIRST, there’s no guarantee Congress will put all that ‘saved’ money into smaller missions. More likely it 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.”