Despite several delays since the program began in 1996 and a budget that has exceeded the original by several billion dollars, the launch of the JWST seems close at hand. That is if you consider almost a year away (the new planned launch date is October 31, 2021) to be close.
Rigorous testing is at the heart of any successful space mission. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be a million miles away when it deploys its mission-critical sun-shield, and if it doesn’t function as planned, that’s it. Game over.
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 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.
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.”
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!
The complex multilayered sunshield that will protect the delicate optics and state of the art infrared science instruments of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is now fully installed on the spacecraft bus in California, completing another major milestone on the path to launch, NASA announced.
Meanwhile a critical cryogenic cooling test of Webb’s mirrors and science instrument bus has commenced inside a giant chamber at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, marking another major milestone as the mammoth telescope comes together after years of development.
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 telescopes groundbreaking tennis court sized 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.
“The sunshield layers work together to reduce the temperatures between the hot and cold sides of the observatory by approximately 570 degrees Fahrenheit,” according to NASA. “Each successive layer of the sunshield is cooler than the one below.”
The painstaking work to integrate the five sunshield membranes was carried out in June and July by engineers and technicians working at the Northrop Grumman Corporation facility in Redondo Beach, California.
“All five sunshield membranes have been installed and will be folded over the next few weeks,” said Paul Geithner, deputy project manager – technical for the Webb telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, in a statement.
Deployment tests of the folded sunshield start in August.
Webb’s four research instruments cannot function without the essential cooling provided by the sunshield deployment.
Northrop Grumman designed the Webb telescope’s optics and spacecraft bus for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which manages Webb.
“This is a huge milestone for the Webb telescope as we prepare for launch,” said Jim Flynn, Webb sunshield manager, Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.
“The groundbreaking tennis court sized sunshield will shield the optics from heat and assist in providing the imaging of the formation of stars and galaxies more than 13.5 billion years ago.”
Webb is designed to look at the first light of the Universe and will be able to peer back in time to when the first stars and first galaxies were forming. It will also study the history of our universe and the formation of our solar system as well as other solar systems and exoplanets, some of which may be capable of supporting life on planets similar to Earth.
After successfully passing a rigorous series of vibration and acoustic environmental tests earlier this year at NASA Goddard in March, the mirror and instrument assembly was shipped to NASA Johnson in May for the cryo cooling tests.
“Those tests ensured Webb can withstand the vibration and noise created during the telescope’s launch into space. Currently, engineers are analyzing this data to prepare for a final round of vibration and acoustic testing, once Webb is joined with the spacecraft bus and sunshield next year,” says NASA.
The cryogenic cooling test will last 100 days and is being carried out inside the giant thermal vacuum known as Chamber A at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
“A combination of liquid nitrogen and cold gaseous helium will be used to cool the telescope and science instruments to their operational temperature during high-vacuum operations,” said Mark Voyton, manager of testing effort, who works at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
Next year, the tennis-court sized sunshield and spacecraft bus will be combined to make up the entire observatory.
The Webb Telescope is a joint international collaborative project between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA).
Assembly of the Webb telescope is currently on target and slated to launch on an ESA Ariane V booster from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana in October 2018.
NASA and ESA are currently evaluating a potential launch scheduling conflict with ESA’s BepiColombo mission to Mercury.
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