The launch of NASA’s upcoming deep-space observatory the James Webb Space Telescope is being pushed back by about a year, from spring 2019 to May 2020. The delay is likely going to push the program over its congressionally capped $8 billion development budget. And it’s yet another setback for the long-delayed telescope, which has been in development for more than two decades now.
The postponement was expected. An audit from the Government Accountability Office earlier this month predicted that more delays would be on the way for the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST. NASA says that all of the flight hardware is fully complete, but the agency needs more time to test the spacecraft’s instruments at the California facilities of its primary contractor, Northrop Grumman. The contractor also needs extra time to piece together the two halves of the vehicle — the telescope portion and the spacecraft portion that will help maneuver JWST in space. “It just took longer,” Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said during a press conference today. “We were bad at estimating that.”
First envisioned in 1996, JWST was originally expected to cost between $1 billion and $3.5 billion, with a launch date scheduled for sometime between 2007 and 2011. But the cost of the project grew throughout the early 2000s, soaring above $4.5 billion, as the telescope’s launch was consistently postponed. Then in 2011, the JWST program went through an extensive replan: a new launch date was set for 2018, and Congress capped the cost of the telescope’s development at $8 billion. After that, NASA said JWST would ultimately cost $8.8 billion, with an extra $837 million needed to operate the telescope once it was in space.
In September, NASA pushed the date of JWST’s launch to spring 2019, because of the time needed to put the pieces of the spacecraft together. But it claimed the existing budget for the program would accommodate the delay. Now, NASA says it will soon provide an estimate on how much this latest delay will exceed the $8 billion cap. And that means that Congress will need to reauthorize the program in order for it to move forward. It’s unclear how NASA will fit in the increased costs, as it is expecting flat budgets in the years ahead.
Despite all the delays and extra money, it seems unlikely that JWST would be scrapped. The primary mirror and instruments of the spacecraft have already been built and undergone rigorous testing at multiple NASA centers. Canceling the program would mean throwing away the $7.3 billion that NASA has already invested so far. “This is the definition of ‘sunk cost,’” Grant Tremblay, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, tells The Verge. “We’re launching this thing.”
JWST is slated to ride to space on top of a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in South America, and then travel out to 1 million miles beyond Earth. Once out there, the telescope will be hailed as the most powerful space observatory in the world, thanks to its 18 beryllium hexagon pieces, all of which are coated with a thin layer of gold. When information, these pieces make up one giant primary mirror that spans more than 21 feet (6.5 meters) across. That’s six times larger than the mirror on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which is currently in orbit around Earth.
This huge mirror will give JWST an unbelievable amount of precision. The telescope will be able to peer into the atmospheres of planets outside our Solar System and peek through massive clouds of dust to watch the birth of new stars and planetary systems. But above all, JWST will be able to gather and reflect light from the early Universe. The Universe is thought to be around 13.8 billion years old, and JWST will be able to observe light from the earliest stars and galaxies.
Because of JWST’s capabilities, many astronomers are vying for time with the telescope. Last year, the Space Telescope Science Institute, which oversees science operations on Hubble and JWST, sent out a call to astronomers for proposals on how they’d like to use James Webb, with 6,000 hours of observation time up for grabs. Those proposals were due next Friday, April 6th, but the deadline has now been extended to February 1st, 2019. “Science changes a lot in a year… People target’s selections will evolve, people’s observing strategies will evolve, and collaborations will evolve,” says Tremblay. “So it’s very difficult right now to write a proposal for a spacecraft that might not be launching for two years.”
Plus, it’s possible that even more delays are on the way. NASA says that it is only 70 percent confident that it can meet this new May 2020 launch date. During a press conference today, NASA executives admitted that a number of mistakes had been made during the spacecraft’s time at Northrop Grumman. For instance, the contractor accidentally caused seven small tears in the vehicle’s thin sunshield — a crucial piece of hardware that will protect JWST from getting too hot from the Sun — while piecing the two halves of the vehicle together. Those tears have been repaired, but it’s unforeseen problems like this that continue to push back the launch date.
And NASA says it will take all the time it needs to get JWST right since there is nothing that can be done once the telescope launches. If the vehicle malfunctions while deep into space, NASA doesn’t have any plans to save it. Additionally, the spacecraft has an incredibly complex deployment process. It must slowly unfurl over a couple weeks to be ready to do its science operations, and if one step goes wrong, it could put the entire mission in peril. “We have to focus on mission success,” Zurbuchen said at today’s press conference. “It’s the highest imperative of this mission.”
While the delays are disheartening, scientists are still behind the telescope no matter what, Tremblay says. “The universe is 13.8 billion years old and the community will wait another year or so,” he says. “We’ll be ready to go back in time when this thing launches.”