NASA’s $8.8 Billion Telescope May Already Be Broken

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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NASA temporarily suspended the launch of the $8.8 billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) after engineers found an “unexpected” and “anomalous” problem while testing the project, NASA revealed in a press release Wednesday.

During vibration testing in December at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center, accelerometers attached to the telescope detected “unexpected responses” and engineers were forced to shut the test down to protect the hardware. The kind of response NASA found could potentially create serious problems when the telescope is launched into space.

“The Webb telescope is the most dynamically complex test article ever tested at Goddard, so the responses were a bit different than expected,” Paul Geithner, NASA’s deputy project manager for the JWST, said in a press statement. “This is why we test—to know how things really are, as opposed to how we think they are.”

NASA isn’t yet sure of the cause of the “unexpected response,” but has successfully conducted three lower-level vibrations of the telescope without further incident. The agency claims that additional visual and ultrasonic examinations of the telescope indicate that it is sound.

NASA announced last December that the JWST was halfway completed, but 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 Government Accountability Office (GAO) now estimates the final cost of the telescope at $8.8 billion.

NASA has scheduled the telescope for an October 2018 launch, adding to the telescope’s long history of major cost overruns and delays.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 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.

JWST isn’t the first NASA space telescope to suffer cost overruns and setbacks. The space agency’s Hubble Space Telescope (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 will not have such a generous margin for error as it will be located far beyond Earth’s orbit at the Sun-Earth L2 LaGrange point, which would make such a Hubble style fix extremely difficult. Furthermore, the telescope is supposed to unfold itself “origami style” in space. The unfolding process is technically complicated and could potentially lead to a disastrous mission failure.

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.

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