NASA Finally Knows What Its $8.8 Billion Space Telescope Will Be Looking For

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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NASA’s perpetually troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) finally unveiled what it will be looking at Thursday.

When the telescope launches in October, NASA will allow some of the scientists who built it to observe Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and the icy Kuiper Belt. The long delayed JWST will then study exoplanets and search for habitable worlds around distant stars.

Scientists knew that the telescope was supposed to study distant worlds and search for habitable planets, but this is the first time that researchers have released a schedule of JWST’s observations. When launched, JWST will be the most powerful telescope ever built, even though it will be much smaller than Earth-based telescopes.

“From the very first galaxies after the Big Bang, to searching for chemical fingerprints of life on Enceladus, Europa, and exoplanets like TRAPPIST-1e, Webb will be looking at some incredible things in our universe,” Eric Smith, JWST’s director at NASA headquarters, said in a press statement. “With over 2100 initial observations planned, there is no limit to what we might discover with this incredible telescope.”

The late publication of JWST’s observation schedule isn’t the first time that delays have plagued the project. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimated the JWST will take $8.8 billion to build and is seven years behind schedule. The program is already $7.2 billion over its initial budget.

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 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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