Whew! A major milestone was achieved today in the James Webb Space Telescope’s journey towards launch. After the telescope successfully arrived in French Guiana yesterday following a secretive 16-day ocean journey (with apparently no pirates in sight), today the telescope took a short road trip over land to the ESA’s spaceport in Kourou. JWST is now at the payload processing facility, where staff will start the process of getting the telescope into the Ariane 5 rocket fairing.
Launch is currently scheduled for December 18, 2021 … T-66 days and counting!
It’s been a long and winding road getting the James Webb Space Telescope from concept to reality. And finally, after decades of planning, work, delays, and cost overruns, the next generation of space telescopes is finally ready to launch. But even now, as the telescope might be secretly traveling by cargo ship to the European Space Agency (ESA) launch site in French Guiana, everyone involved with the JWST project knows a successful launch isn’t the final victory.
In reality, post launch is when the real nail-biting begins. While the Mars rover teams undergo “Seven Minutes of Terror” to land their spacecraft on the Red Planet, the JWST teams will have more than 30 days of excruciating, slow-motion terror as the telescope embarks on its month-long-day, 1.5-million-kilometer (million-mile) journey out to the second Lagrange point (L2).
You may have heard this one before, but encouraging news comes from NASA, ESA, and Arianespace today: they are now targeting December 18, 2021 as the new launch date for the oft-delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
Finally, it’s starting to get real for the James Webb Space Telescope. Engineers are now preparing the long-awaited landmark telescope for transport to its launch site at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana.
Officials from NASA and ESA this acknowledged the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will very likely be delayed from the end of October to at least mid-November, 2021. As we reported last month, the usually reliable Ariane 5 has experienced problems on two previous launches where unexpected vehicle accelerations occurred when the fairing separated from the rocket. The fairing is the nose cone used to protect a spacecraft payload during launch and acceleration through Earth’s atmosphere.
“Indeed, there was an anomaly which has been mentioned recently in the media,” said Daniel de Chambure, acting head of Ariane 5 adaptations, during a media briefing on JWST. “The origin of the problem has been found; corrective actions have been taken.”
A new report from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) says that the launch of the long-awaited, highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will very likely be delayed due to an anomaly identified in the Ariane 5 launch vehicle. Launch for JWST is currently scheduled for October 31, 2021, but that date could slip by at least a couple of weeks.
Once it is deployed to space, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be the most sophisticated and advanced space telescope in operation. Carrying on in the tradition ofHubble, Kepler, and Spitzer, the JWST will use its advanced suite of infrared imaging capabilities to study distant exoplanets, learn more about the Solar System, and study the earliest galaxies in the Universe.
After numerous delays, NASA announced last summer that the much-anticipated JWST would be ready to launch by 2021. And in what is admittedly a very nice change of pace, NASA recently indicated that this is still a go! According to their latest update, the JWST has just completed its final vacuum test and is on track for launch in March of 2021.
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.
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.”
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 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.
The most powerful space telescope ever built will have to wait on the ground for a few more months into 2019 before launching to the High Frontier and looking back nearly to the beginning of time and unraveling untold astronomical secrets on how the early Universe evolved – Engineers need a bit more time to complete the Webb telescopes incredibly complex assembly and testing here on Earth.
“NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope now is planning to launch between March and June 2019 from French Guiana, following a schedule assessment of the remaining integration and test activities,” the agency announced.
Until now the Webb telescope was scheduled to launch on a European Space Agency (ESA) Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in October 2018.
“The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.
“Rather, the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected.”
NASA’s says the currently approved budget will not bust the budget or reduce the science output. It “accommodates the change in launch date, and the change will not affect planned science observations.”
NASA’s $8.8 Billion James Webb Space Telescope is the most powerful space telescope ever built and is the scientific successor to the phenomenally successful Hubble Space Telescope (HST).
The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Since Webb is not designed to be serviced by astronauts, the extremely thorny telescope deployment process is designed to occur on its own over a period of several months and must be fully successful. Webb will be positioned at the L2 Lagrange point- a gravitationally stable spot approximately 930,000 miles (1.5 million km) away from Earth.
So its better to be safe than sorry and take the extra time needed to insure success of the hugely expensive project.
Various completed components of the Webb telescope are undergoing final testing around the country to confirm their suitability for launch.
Critical cryogenic cooling testing of Webb’s mirrors and science instrument bus is proceeding well inside a giant chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.
However integration and testing of the complex multilayered sunshield at Northrup Grumman’s Redondo Beach, Ca. facility is taking longer than expected and “has experienced delays.”
The tennis court sized sunshield will protect the delicate optics and state of the art infrared science instruments on NASA’s Webb Telescope.
Webb’s four research instruments cannot function without the essential cooling provided by the sunshield deployment to maintain them at an operating temperature of minus 388 degrees F (minus 233 degrees C).
The Webb telescopes groundbreaking sunshield subsystem consists of five layers of kapton that will keep the optics and instruments incredibly cool, by reducing the incoming sunside facing temperature more than 570 degrees Fahrenheit. Each layer is as thin as a human hair.
“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,” said Eric Smith, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a statement.
“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.”
Northrop Grumman designed the Webb telescope’s optics and spacecraft bus for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages Webb.
Watch for Ken’s onsite space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.
Learn more about the upcoming ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch on Oct 5 and SpaceX Falcon 9 SES-11 launch on Oct 7, JWST, OSIRIS-REx, NASA missions and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:
Oct 3-6, 8: “ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch, SpaceX SES-11, CRS-12 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, ULA Atlas/John Glenn Cygnus launch to ISS, SBIRS GEO 3 launch, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings