NASA experts admitted they won’t be able to fix the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) if something goes wrong.
JWST will unfold itself “origami style” in deep space in an extremely technically complicated process which could potentially lead to a disastrous mission failure. If a failure occurs, the telescope will be located far beyond Earth’s orbit at the Sun-Earth L2 LaGrange point, which would make such a Hubble Space Telescope (HST) style fix extremely difficult. NASA currently lacks the capability to send a team of astronauts out that far to fix any problems.
Even if NASA could get out to JWST, the telescope won’t have a grappling ring for an astronaut to grab onto and the telescope could potentially kill astronauts attempting to fix it.
“We don’t want to mess with this one. It is a really cold telescope,” Dr. John Mather, science director for the JWST told Space.com. “The solar panels to protect the telescope have sharp edges and astronauts don’t like being around sharp edges.”
The telescope must also be kept extremely cold relative to the space around it so that infrared astronomy can be done. Even a small problem with the cooling system could significantly decrease JWST’s usefulness.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) now estimates the final cost of JWST at $8.8 billion, and NASA has scheduled the telescope for an October 2018 launch, adding to the telescope’s long history of major cost overruns and delays. The project is currently $7.2 billion over its initial budget and seven years behind the original schedule. The JWST was initially projected to cost $1.6 billion.
The telescope cost $645.4 million in 2015 alone, accounting for roughly 13 percent of NASA’s annual science budget. The telescope has remained on schedule and within budget since December 2014, but it remains at risk of further delays, according to the GAO.
JWST isn’t the first NASA space telescope to suffer cost overruns and setbacks. The space agency’s HST was originally intended to launch in 1983, but technical issues delayed the launch until 1990. NASA discovered that HST’s main mirror was incorrectly manufactured after the launch, forcing the space agency to install a corrective lens in orbit using the Space Shuttle.
JWST is relatively tiny compared to larger Earth-based telescopes, but its infrared capabilities and position above the atmosphere could allow it to locate potentially habitable planets around other stars, perhaps even extraterrestrial life.
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