NASA Gives Update on Launch of Revolutionary New Telescope

By Chris Jasurek

The James Webb Space Telescope, the most ambitious astronomical observatory platform ever devised, is a little farther from launch than originally announced.

NASA’s Independent Review Board (IRB) decided that though the project is behind schedule and experiencing unforeseen delays and cost overruns, it should still go forward.

“Webb should continue based on its extraordinary scientific potential and critical role in maintaining U.S. leadership in astronomy and astrophysics,” IRB Chairman Tom Young told NASA.

The Webb’s 21-foot gold-plated mirror should be able to gather infrared rays from the earliest days of the Universe. (NASA/Northrop Grumman/Flickr)
The Webb’s 21-foot gold-plated mirror should be able to gather infrared rays from the earliest days of the Universe. (NASA/Northrop Grumman/Flickr)

The new earliest launch date has been moved to March 30, 2021. Prior to this latest delay, the Webb was due to launch in 2020—already two years later than its initially announced launch date of October 2018.

The Webb originally had an $8 billion development budget. Due to the difficulties the project has experienced, that figure has grown by $800 million. The total cost for the project is now projected to be $9.66 billion, according to the IRB report (pdf).

The IRB report states that not only technical setbacks but human error played important roles in slowing the project.

IRB Chairman Tom Young wants NASA to take the time to test everything before the launch—later is too late. (NASA/Northrop Grumman/Flickr)
IRB Chairman Tom Young wants NASA to take the time to test everything before the launch—later is too late. (NASA/Northrop Grumman/Flickr)

Cutting-Edge Science

The Webb Space Telescope will be an unprecedented advance in cosmic observation. When complete, the telescope will orbit about one million miles away from the Earth, focusing deep into far way galaxies. The Webb telescope should get a more unobstructed view compared to Earth-based telescopes or even the Hubble Telescope.

According to NASA, the Webb will have 100 times greater sensitivity than the Hubble.

The Webb should be able to peer back through space and time to see the first stars forming in the early Universe.

The telescope will have to be folded to fit inside its launch vehicle, an Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket. Once unfolded, the Webb’s main mirror will span 21 feet, with a sunshield the size of a tennis court, according to NASA.

Obviously, there are a lot of potential problems involved with a mission this complex—and once the telescope is a million miles in space, fixing them would be impossible. NASA needs to get everything right before the launch—even if this costs time and money beyond what was originally budgeted, the IRB stated.

As IRB Chairman Tom Young told NASA, “Ensuring every element of Webb functions properly before it gets to space is critical to its success.”

The Webb is not just ambitious in scientific terms—the technical challenges are also enormous. (NASA/Northrop Grumman/Flickr)
The Webb is not just ambitious in scientific terms—the technical challenges are also enormous. (NASA/Northrop Grumman/Flickr)

 

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