James Webb Completes a Comprehensive Systems Test for the First Time

In 1996, NASA began working on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a next-generation infrared observatory that would be a total game-changer. And next year, after multiple delays, cost overruns, and exhaustive testing, the observatory will finally take to space. Despite an additional delay forced by the outbreak of COVID-19, NASA recently announced that it is targeting Oct. 31st, 2021, as the launch date.

In other good news, teams at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center took advantage of the fact that the JWST is now fully-assembled to conduct the highly-critical software and electrical analysis known as the Comprehensive Systems Test (CST). This was the first time that a full systems-evaluation was conducted on the fully-assembled vehicle, and will help ensure that the JWST will function in space when the time comes!

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Well. It Looks Like James Webb is Getting Delayed Again, but it Should Still Launch in 2021

This is probably one of the least surprising announcements to come out of the coronavirus pandemic.

During a virtual meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, NASA’s associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, made an announcement. He said there’s no way the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will meet its target launch date of March 2021.

Already on a tight timeline, work on the telescope has slowed during the pandemic.

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How Will Clouds Obscure the View of Exoplanet Surfaces?

In 2021, NASA’s next-generation observatory, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), will take to space. Once operational, this flagship mission will pick up where other space telescopes – like Hubble, Kepler, and Spitzer – left off. This means that in addition to investigating some of the greatest cosmic mysteries, it will also search for potentially habitable exoplanets and attempt to characterize their atmospheres.

This is part of what sets the JWST apart from its predecessors. Between its high sensitivity and infrared imaging capabilities, it will be able to gather data on exoplanet atmospheres like never before. However, as a NASA-supported study recently showed, planets that have dense atmospheres might also have extensive cloud cover, which could complicate attempts to gather some of the most important data of all.

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What Will the James Webb Space Telescope See? A Whole Bunch of Dust, That’s What

When it comes to the first galaxies, the James Webb Space Telescope will attempt to understand the formation of those galaxies and their link to the underlying dark matter. In case you didn’t know, most of the matter in our universe is invisible (a.k.a. “dark”), but its gravity binds everything together, including galaxies. So by studying galaxies – and especially their formation – we can get some hints as to how dark matter works. At least, that’s the hope. It turns out that astronomy is a little bit more complicated than that, and one of the major things we have to deal with when studying these distant galaxies is dust. A lot of dust.

That’s right: good old-fashioned dust. And thanks to some fancy simulations, we’re beginning to clear up the picture.

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James Webb is Enduring its Final Stage of Testing Before it Ships off for Kourou, French Guiana

Once deployed, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most powerful telescope ever built. As the spiritual and scientific successor to the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler space telescopes, this space observatory will use its advanced suite of infrared instruments to the look back at the earliest stars and galaxies, study the Solar System in depth, and help characterize extra-solar planets (among other things).

Unfortunately, the launch of the JWST has been subject to multiple delays, with the launch date now set for some time in 2019. Luckily, on Thursday, March 8th, engineers at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters began the final step in the observatory’s integration and testing. Once complete, the JWST will be ready to ship to French Guiana, where it will be launched into space.

This final phase consisted of removing the combined optics and science instruments from their shipping containers – known as the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) – which recently arrived after being testing at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. This constitutes half the observatory, and includes the telescope’s 6.5 meter (21.3 foot) golden primary mirror.

The Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) being opened at Northrop Grumman on March 8th, 2018, to reveal the combined optics and science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

The science payload was also tested at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center last year to ensure it could handle the vibrations associated with space launches and the temperatures and vacuum conditions of space. The other half of the observatory consists of the integrated spacecraft and sunshield, which is in the final phase of assembly at the Northrop Grumman company headquarters.

These will soon undergo a launch environment test to prove that they are ready to be combined with the science payload. Once both halves are finished being integrated, addition testing will be performed to guarantee the  fully assembled observatory can operate at the L2 Earth-Sun Lagrange Point. As Eric Smith, the program director for the JWST at NASA Headquarters, said in a recent NASA press statement:

“Extensive and rigorous testing prior to launch has proven effective in ensuring that NASA’s missions achieve their goals in space. 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 are crucial to ensuring that that the observatory deploys properly and can operate once it is in space. This is largely because of the telescope’s complicated design, which needs to be folded in order to fit inside the Ariane 5 rocket that it will carry it into space. Once it reaches its destination, the telescope will have to unfold again, deploying its sunshield, mirrors and primary mirror.

The James Webb Space Telescope’s sunshield being deployed inside a cleanroom at Northrop Grumman’s company headquarter’s, in October 2017. Credits: Northrop Grumman

Not only does all of this represented a very technically-challenging feet, it is the first time that any space telescope has had to perform it. Beyond that, there are also the technical challenges of building a complex observatory that is designed to operate in space. While the JWST’s optics and science instruments were all built at room temperature here on Earth, they had to be designed to operate at cryogenic temperatures.

As such, its mirrors had to be precisely polished and formed that they would achieve the correct shape once they cool in space. Similarly, its sunshield will be operating in a zero gravity environment, but was built and tested here on Earth where the gravity is a hefty 9.8 m/s² (1 g). In short, the James Webb Space Telescope is the largest and most complex space telescope ever built, and is one of NASA’s highest priority science projects.

It is little wonder then why NASA has had to put the JWST through such a highly-rigorous testing process. As Smith put it:

“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. The way we achieve success is to test, test and retest, so we understand the complex systems and verify they will work.”

The James Webb Space Telescope (which is scheduled to launch in 2019) will be the most powerful telescope ever deployed. Credit: NASA/JPL

Knowing that the JWST is now embarking on the final phase of its development – and that its engineers are confident it will perform up to task – is certainly good news. Especially in light of a recent report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), which stated that more delays were likely and that the project would probably exceed its original budget cap of $8 billion.

As the report indicated, it is the final phase of integration and testing where problems are most likely to be found and schedules revised. However, the report also stated that “Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systematically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”

In other words, there is no indication whatsoever that Congress is considering cancelling the project, regardless of further delays or cost overruns. And when the JWST is deployed, it will use its 6.5 meter (21-foot) infrared-optimized telescopes will search to a distance of over 13 billion light years, allow astronomers to study the atmospheres of Solar Planets, exoplanets, and other objects within our Solar System.

So while the JWST may not make its launch window in 2019, we can still expect that it will be taking to space in the near future. And when it does, we can also expect that what it reveals about our Universe will be mind-blowing!

Further Reading: NASA

James Webb Telescope is Probably Going to be Delayed Again, and Could Exceed a Congress Spending Cap

The James Webb Space Telescope will be the first of the Super Telescopes to see first light. It is scheduled to be launched in October, 2018. Image credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

When the James Webb Space Telescope takes to space, some tremendous scientific discoveries are expected to result. As the spiritual and scientific successor to the Hubble, Spitzer, and Kepler Space Telescopes, this space observatory will use its advanced suite of infrared instruments to the look back at the early Universe, study the Solar System, and help characterize extra-solar planets.

Unfortunately, the launch of this mission has been delayed several times now, with the launch date now set for some time in 2019. And based on the amount of work NASA needs to do complete the JWST before launch, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) believes that more delays are coming and believes that the project is likely to exceed the cost cap set by Congress in 2011 at $8 billion. 

Part of the problem is that all the remaining schedule reserve – the extra time set aside in the event of delays or unforeseen risks – was recently used to address technical issues. These include the “anomalous readings” detected from the telescope during vibration testing back in December 2016. NASA responded to this by giving the project up to 4 months of schedule reserve by extending the launch window.

The JWST sunshield being unfolded in the clean room at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California. Credits: Northrop Grumman Corp.

However, in 2017, NASA delayed the launch window again by 5 months, from October 2018 to a between March and June 2019. This delay was requested by the project team, who indicated that they needed to address lessons learned from the initial folding and deployment of the observatory’s sunshield. As Eric Smith, the program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters, explained to Congress at the time:

“Webb’s spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft. The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer. Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systemmatically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch.”

Given the remaining integration and test work that lies ahead, more delays are expected. According to the GAO, it is this phase where problems are most likely to be found and schedules revised. Coupled with the fact that only 1.5 months of schedule reserves remain until the end of the launch window, they anticipate that additional launch delays are likely, which will also require budget increases.

Initially, the budget estimates that were set by Congress indicated that the observatory would cost $1.6 billion and would launch by 2011, with an overall cost cap set at $8 billion. However, NASA has revised the budget multiple times since then (in conjunction with the multiple delays) and estimates that the budget for a 2019 launch window would now be $8.8 billion.

The James Webb Space Telescope being placed in the Johnson Space Center’s historic Chamber A on June 20th, 2017. Credit: NASA/JSC

Once deployed, the JWST will be the most powerful space telescope ever built and will serve thousands of astronomers worldwide. As a collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), it also representative of the new era of international cooperation. But by far, the most impressive thing about this mission is the scientific discoveries it is expected to make.

It’s 6.5 meter (21-foot) infrared-optimized telescopes will search to a distance of over 13 billion light years, allowing it to study the first stars and galaxies that formed. It will also allow astronomers to study the atmospheres of Solar Planets and exoplanets and other objects within our Solar System. As such, and delays and cost overruns in the project are cause for concern.

In the meantime, the project’s Standing Review Board will conduct an independent review in early 2018 to determine if the June 2019 launch window can still be met. With so many experiments and surveys planned for the telescope, it would be no exaggeration to say that a lot is riding on its successful completion and deployment. Best of luck passing review James Webb Space Telescope!

Further Reading: Government Accountability Office

James Webb Makes The Journey From Houston To Los Angeles; Last Stop Before It Heads To The Launch Facility In 2019

The two halves of the James Webb Space Telescope are now in the same location and ready to take the next step on JWST’s journey. On February 2nd, Webb’s Optical Telescope and Integrated Science instrument module (OTIS) arrived at Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in Redondo Beach, California. The integrated spacecraft, consisting of the spacecraft bus and sunshield, were already there, waiting for OTIS so they could join together and become a complete spacecraft.

“The team will begin the final stages of integration of the world’s largest space telescope.” – Scott Willoughby, Northrop Grumman’s Program Manage for the JWST.

“It’s exciting to have both halves of the Webb observatory – OTIS and the integrated spacecraft element – here at our campus,” said Scott Willoughby, vice president and program manager for Webb at Northrop Grumman. “The team will begin the final stages of integration of the world’s largest space telescope.”

The Space Telescope for Air, Road, and Sea (STTARS) is a custom-designed container that holds the James Webb’s Optical Telescope and Integrated Science (OTIS) instrument module. In this image its being unloaded from a U.S. military C-5 Charlie aircraft at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) on Feb. 2, 2018. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

OTIS arrived from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, where it had successfully completed its cryogenic testing. To prepare for that journey, OTIS was placed inside a custom shipping container designed to protect the delicate and expensive Webb Telescope from any damage. That specially designed container is called the Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS).

STTARS is a massive container, measuring 4.6 meters (15 feet) wide, 5.2 meters (17 feet) tall, and 33.5 meters feet (110) long, and weighing approximately 75,000 kilograms (almost 165,000 pounds). It’s much larger than the James Webb itself, but even then, the primary mirror wings and the secondary mirror tripod must be folded into flight configuration in order to fit.

The Space Telescope Transporter for Air, Road and Sea (STTARS) NASA’s at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Image: NASA/Chris Gunn

The next step for the JWST is to join the spacecraft itself with OTIS. Once that happens, JWST will be complete and fully integrated. Then there’ll be more tests called observatory-level testing. After that, another journey inside STTARS to Kouru, French Guiana, where the JWST will be launched in 2019.

“This is a major milestone.” – Eric Smith, director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program at NASA.

“This is a major milestone,” said Eric Smith, director of the James Webb Space Telescope Program at NASA. “The Webb observatory, which is the work of thousands of scientists and engineers across the globe, will be carefully tested to ensure it is ready to launch and enable scientists to seek the first luminous objects in the universe and search for signs of habitable planets.”

You can’t fault people, either NASA personnel or the rest of us, for getting excited about each development in the James Webb Space Telescope story. Every time the thing twitches or moves, our excitement re-spawns. It seems like everything that happens with the JWST is now a milestone in its long, uncertain journey. It’s easy to see why.

The Space Telescope That Almost Wasn’t

The James Webb ran into a lot of problems during its development. As can be expected for a ground-breaking, technology-pushing project like the Webb, it’s expensive. In 2011, when the project was well underway, it was revealed that the Webb would cost $8.8 billion, much more than the initial budget of $1.6 billion. The House of Representatives cancelled the project, then restored it, though funding was capped at $8 billion.

That was the main hurdle facing the development of the JWST, but there were others, including timeline delays. The most recent timeline change moved the launch date from 2017 to Spring 2019. As of now, the James Webb is on schedule, and on target to meet its revised budget.

The First “Super Telescope”

The JWST is the first of the “Super Telescopes” to be in operation. Once it’s in place at LaGrange Point 2 (L2), about 1.5 million km (930,000 miles) from Earth, it will begin observing, primarily in infrared. It will surpass both the Hubble Telescope and the Spitzer Telescope, and will “look back in time” to some of oldest stars and galaxies in the universe. It will also examine exoplanets and contribute to the search for life.

James Webb Wraps up 3 Months in the Freezer. It’s Ready for Space

When the James Webb Space Telescope finally takes to space, it will study some of the most distant objects in the Universe, effectively looking back in time to see the earliest light of the cosmos. It will also study extra-solar planets around nearby stars and even bodies within the Solar System. In this respect, the JWST is the natural successor to Hubble and other pioneering space telescopes.

It is therefore understandable why the world is so eager for the JWST to be launched into space (which is now scheduled to take place in 2019). And recently, the telescope passed another major milestone along the road towards deployment. After spending three months in a chamber designed to simulate the temperatures and vacuum conditions of space, the JWST emerged and was given a clean bill of health.

The tests took place inside Chamber A, a thermal vacuum testing facility located at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. This chamber was built back in 1965 as part of NASA’s race to the Moon, where it conducted tests to ensure that the Apollo command and service modules were space-worthy. Beginning in mid-July, the telescope was put into the chamber and subjected to temperatures ranging from 20 to 40 K (-253 to -233 °C; 423 to 387 °F).

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope sits in Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston awaiting the colossal door to close in July 2017 for cryogenic testing. Credits: NASA/Chris Gunn

Once the temperature and vacuum conditions were just right, a team of NASA engineers began testing the alignment of the JWST’s 18 primary mirror segments to make sure they would act as a single, 6.5-meter telescope. As Bill Ochs – the James Webb telescope project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center – indicated to ArsTechnica, this latest test has shown that the telescope is indeed space-worthy.

“We now have verified that NASA and its partners have an outstanding telescope and set of science instruments,” he said. “We are marching toward launch.”

The team of engineers also tested the JWST’s guidance and optical systems by simulating the light of a distant star. Not only was the telescope able to detect the light, its optical systems were able to process it. The telescope was also able to track the simulated star’s movement, which demonstrated that the JWST will be able to acquire and hold research targets once it is in space.

Many tests are still needed before the JWST can take to space next year. These will be conducted at Northrop Grumman’s company headquarters in Los Angeles, where the telescope will be transported after leaving the Johnson Space Center in late January or early February. Once there, the optical instrument will mated to the spacecraft and sunshield to complete the construction of the telescope.

The sunshield test unit on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is unfurled for the first time. Credit: NASA

These tests are necessary since NASA will be hard-pressed to service the telescope once it is in space. This is due to the fact that it will be operating at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange Point (which will place farther away from Earth than the Moon) for a minimum of five years. At this distance, any servicing missions will be incredibly difficult, time-consuming and expensive to mount.

However, once the JWST has passed its entire battery of tests and NASA is satisfied it is ready to take to space, it will be shipped off to the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Once there, it will launch aboard a European Space Agency (ESA) Ariane V booster. Originally, this was scheduled to take place in October of 2017, but is now expected to take place no earlier than Spring of 2018.

When the James Webb Space Telescope is operational, it is expected to reveal some truly amazing things about our Universe. In addition to looking farther into space than any previous telescope (and further back in time), its other research goals include studying nearby exoplanets in unprecedented detail, circumstellar debris disks, supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies, and even searching for life in the Solar System by examining Jupiter’s moons.

For this reason, NASA can be forgiven for pushing the launch back to make sure everything is in working order. But of course, we can be forgiven for wanting to see it launched as soon as possible! There are mysteries out there that are just waiting to be revealed, and some amazing scientific finds that need to be followed up on.

In the meantime, be sure to check out this video about the JWST, courtesy of NASA:

Further Reading: ArsTechnica, NASA