NASA’s Extremely Over-Budget Telescope Now In Final Testing

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Andrew Follett Energy and Science Reporter
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NASA began final testing for the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) Tuesday, in an effort to finish testing before the telescope’s planned launch date in October.

JWST is currently $7.2 billion over-budget and seven years behind schedule. The project was initially estimated to cost $1.6 billion, but will now cost $8.8 billion.

Scientists want to make sure they’ve ironed out all the previously discovered problems with JWST.

The space agency will put JWST in a cryogenic vacuum testing chamber at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md, and over the next month, scientists will suck air out of the room and cool it down to simulate temperatures in space.

NASA is testing the telescope’s sun-shield, which will keep JWST cold enough to detect infrared light from distant objects. Testing will determine if the warm, sun-facing side of the telescope can handle temperatures of 185 degrees Fahrenheit, and if the shielded side can handle temperatures up to 400 degrees below zero.

“There are many thermal sensors that monitor temperatures of the telescope and the support equipment,” Gary Matthews, an engineer at Goddard, said in a statement. “Specialized camera systems track the physical position of the hardware inside the chamber, monitoring how Webb moves as it gets colder.”

During vibration testing last December, 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.

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.

This 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 an HST 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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