We’re going to have a wait even longer for NASA’s next-generation James Webb Space Telescope to leave Earth, owing to delays caused by the covid-19 pandemic.
Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science directorate, broke the bad news yesterday during a virtual meeting for the Space Studies Board of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
“We will not launch in March, absolutely will not launch in March,” said Zurbuchen in reference to the previously scheduled launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) in 2021. “That is not in the cards right now,” he said, in a transcription prepared by Space Policy Online.
For NASA and Northrop Grumman (the space agency’s principal contractor for the project), it’s yet another setback for a project already beset by setbacks. The postponed launch is the latest in a seemingly endless train of cost overruns and scheduling delays. This time around, however, the finger of blame is being pointed directly at covid-19 and the ongoing global pandemic.
“It’s not because [NASA and Northrop Grumman] did anything wrong,” said Zurbuchen. “It’s just not going to be in the cards, and it’s not a fault or mismanagement of some type,” he said, adding that the program had made great strides recently and the JWST was on course for a March 2021 launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. And indeed, engineers recently conducted a successful test of the system’s Deployable Tower Assembly.
“I’m very optimistic of this thing getting off the launch pad in ’21...because of the results I’m seeing, [but] there still is a lot of mountain to climb,” said Zurbuchen, saying NASA and its partners will need to learn the “new efficiency” of working in pandemic conditions and that a revised launch schedule won’t be assessed until July.
A tentative launch date in 2021, given everything that’s been going on, is actually quite encouraging, and we cannot wait to see this thing get off the ground. The JWST is the successor observatory to the 30-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. Once in space, the infrared telescope will “look much closer to the beginning of time and to hunt for the unobserved formation of the first galaxies, as well as to look inside dust clouds where stars and planetary systems are forming today,” according to NASA. The telescope will also be capable of scanning the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, representing a potentially huge leap forward for scientists on the hunt for habitable worlds.
But JWST is proving to be an exceptionally complex machine to build and test, as it features no less than 300 single points of failure, as Space Policy Online reported earlier this year. The telescope is currently in the integration and testing phase of its development, but the pandemic forced NASA and Northrop Grumman to slow things down. As SpaceNews reports, work did not halt completely at the Northrop facility in southern California; the company is now running five eight-hour shifts each week, as opposed to the usual 12 10-hour shifts.
The JWST was supposed to launch around 10 years ago (yes, really), at an initial price tag of $1 billion (£794 million). But as Eric Berger reports in Ars Technica, the current cost estimate for its development has crept up to $9.7 billion (£7.7 billion), which could still be on the low side. Sadly, the JWST project has cast NASA’s ability to manage flagship missions in doubt – a concern Zurbuchen was keen to address during yesterday’s meeting.
“NASA needs to do flagships. We need to learn how to do flagships,” he said. “Frankly, part of being a leader in space means that we need to do things that nobody has ever done before. In astrophysics especially, and also in some of the planetary sciences, but there’s other fields where some of these flagships are the only tools to move things forward.”
To which he added: “The challenge with flagships has been, and we’re spending a lot of effort and learning on it, is to manage them in a way that they don’t eat the neighbourhood.”
In more positive news, NASA is still expected to launch its Perseverance rover to Mars in July, though the date was pushed back by three days due to an undisclosed issue. Fingers remain firmly crossed.
Featured image: Northrop Grumman