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NASA delays James Webb Space Telescope, pushes launch to 2020

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NASA/Desiree Stover

Last year, NASA welcomed spring with a beautiful new image of the James Webb Space Telescope. This year, the space agency has some less uplifting news.

Due to technical hangups and “avoidable errors,” NASA officials said this week that the launch of the Webb will be delayed until 2020 and costs may rise above the congressionally mandated $8 billion spending cap.

Problems were encountered with the portion of the spacecraft meant to house the expandable telescope in flight, which started a review of the program. All of the hardware is complete, according to NASA’s acting administrator Robert Lightfoot. “However,” he told reporters in a teleconference, “work performance challenges that were brought to light have prompted us to take some action.”

Space missions have always been accompanied by delays. The Webb is no exception. Just last September, NASA announced the telescope would miss its October 2018 target launch, pushing liftoff back to between March and June of 2019. But, upon further review, the agency has scheduled 2020 as a more realistic date.

“We need to successfully integrate both halves of the observatory into the final flight configuration and complete some vital testing after an independent assessment of the remaining tasks,” Lightfoot said. “Frankly, the tasks are taking longer to complete than we expected, which will result in a new target launch window, which we now expect to be approximately May of 2020.”

After two decades of construction, the agency announced the completion of the James Webb Space Telescope in November of 2017, following the first important pretest to measure its primary mirror. Over the next few months, the telescope went through a series of grueling trials that shook, rattled, and froze the state-of-the-art machine, subjecting it to conditions it will have to face in outer space. With the final gold-coated segment of its 21-foot-wide mirror array in place, the telescope can now sprawl like an enormous sunflower.

Now scheduled to launch in May 2020, the Webb telescope will be the most powerful telescope in existence, built to capture infrared light from the first galaxies of the ancient universe.

To launch the satellite, the Webb telescope’s sunshield will be folded a dozen times before being packed into a bullet-shaped capsule. Once 930,000 miles distant from Earth (at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point), the array will unravel in a glorious, sky-gazing display.

“The groundbreaking sunshield design will assist in providing the imaging of the formation of stars and galaxies more than 13.5 billion years ago,” Webb sunshield manager Jim Flynn said in a statement last November. “The delivery of this final flight sunshield membrane is a significant milestone as we prepare for 2018 launch.”

At over $8.7 billion in construction and operating costs, the Webb telescope is more than four time as expensive as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, and 100 times more powerful. However, where the Hubble was within reach of astronauts who could spacewalk to the telescope if anything were to wrong, the Webb will be too far into space for an easy mission. For that reason, it’s imperative that everything work as planned before the Webb telescope is sent on its journey.

Updated on March 28: NASA delays launch until 2020.

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