The James webb space telescope (JWST), plagued by NASA, is scrambling for more water, according to a report released yesterday by the us government accountability office (GAO). The GAO found that the problem of testing orbital telescope components and integrating them together meant that further delay was possible. That could mean the project would violate the $8 billion cost ceiling imposed by congress in 2011.
JWST is the successor to the Hubble space telescope, but has more than three times the width of the mirror and focuses on a slightly longer wavelength. It is expected to revolutionize our understanding of the early universe, the planets around other stars, and many other planets.
It is also the most complex and expensive scientific task built by NASA (and its European and Canadian partners). Its early development was plagued by cost overruns and scheduling, but after the near-cancelled crisis of 2011, congress put its budget in trouble. From then on, construction and test of spacecraft are mostly stay on track, but in September last year, NASA postponed from October 2018 JWST plans to launch between March 2019 and June date.
Recently, telescopes and instruments completed a 100-day test in a giant vacuum chamber at Johnson space center in Houston, Texas. These components are then transported to the main contractor northrop grumman factory in redondo beach, California, where they will eventually be connected to the shuttle bus and the size of a tennis court expandable sun shade.
kThe project has been working to eep healthy reserves on budgets and schedules, but in recent months those reserves have started to decline. The GAO report says the telescope’s vibration tests at the greenbelt, Maryland, space flight center last year found some unexpected results. The backlog of all remaining timetables has been resolved, leading to a delay to 2019 and a further four
months of reserves for the team. But then, in October 2017, the first test of the visor was behind schedule. The sunshade, made of a very thin and separated layer of metal coating, must be folded before it can be launched, and then deployed in space. Engineers at northrop grumman have used subtle flight hardware four times to do this. “It takes longer than predicted, but it’s about the right thing,” said Scott Willoughby, project manager at northrop grumman’s JWST project. The process, he says, requires “excessive caution.”
Mating between a telescope and a bus may pose more challenges, with only 1.5 months to go, and the GAO thinks there may be another launch delay. Addressing these unexpected problems also means keeping employees longer than expected, the GAO said, which has exhausted the project’s cash reserves. If there are more problems and further delays, JWST could exceed congress’s budget limit. How lawmakers respond to this is not clear.
“As we enter this critical and challenging period, the webb project is carefully reviewing the rest of the mission’s plans,” NASA said in a statement released today. The mission’s permanent review committee will begin an independent assessment of the project in mid-march and is expected to report in early April. “