NASA sets a new launch date of December 18 for the James Webb Space Telescope

Shawn Knight

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Recap: NASA’s most complex space observatory to date is also unfortunately one of the agency’s most hamstrung projects. Work on the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope officially started way back in 1996, some six years after Hubble was launched into low earth orbit. A litany of delays and cost overruns ensued, pushing the project well beyond its initial 2007 launch date and sub-$1 billion budget.

NASA has set a new target launch date of December 18, 2021, for the James Webb Space Telescope after it recently completed final testing late last month. Here’s to hoping the date actually sticks this time.

By the time it launches at the end of the year (assuming that actually happens), nearly $10 billion will have been sunk into the mission.

When it does finally reach its destination in space, the James Webb Space Telescope promises to offer an unprecedented look at the universe that'll help us better understand its origins and our place in it. The infrared telescope features a 6.5-meter primary mirror comprised of 18 separate segments that will unfold once in space.

NASA plans to put the telescope into a halo orbit roughly 930,000 miles from Earth where it'll be able to operate at the extremely low temperatures required by its instruments.

The Webb telescope is currently being stored at Northrop Grumman’s facilities in Redondo Beach, California, but will soon be shipped off to Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana where it’ll hitch a ride to space via an Ariane 5 rocket.

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neeyik

Posts: 1,881   +2,199
Staff member
This is probably going to be the most nerve wracking launch since...well, I was going to make a poor taste joke about Blue Origin and the non-return of Bezos; instead I'll settle for Apollo 8. So much is riding on this, and so much has gone poorly up to this point, that I should imagine the launch team will be desperately nauseous throughout the whole shebang.
 

VitalyT

Posts: 5,962   +6,235
And it no longer needs to peer into a black hole to discover what's inside - it's the 10bln.
 

yRaz

Posts: 3,857   +4,047
This is probably going to be the most nerve wracking launch since...well, I was going to make a poor taste joke about Blue Origin and the non-return of Bezos; instead I'll settle for Apollo 8. So much is riding on this, and so much has gone poorly up to this point, that I should imagine the launch team will be desperately nauseous throughout the whole shebang.
I wouldn't say it has gone poorly, the problem is that so much new technology had to be invented for us to build it. We can say we're going to build a folding 6.5 meter space telescope all we want, that doesn't mean we have the tech to do so. After reading about the engineering hurdles they had to overcome it's amazing we were able to build it at all.

Now that we built the JWST, if it's successful the only real limit to the size of space telecopes we can build is what we can fit onto rockets.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 6,581   +4,987
I wouldn't say it has gone poorly, the problem is that so much new technology had to be invented for us to build it. We can say we're going to build a folding 6.5 meter space telescope all we want, that doesn't mean we have the tech to do so. After reading about the engineering hurdles they had to overcome it's amazing we were able to build it at all.
(y) (Y)Absolutely. JWST is a technical marvel. A look at what kind of technical hurdles that can arise in the space program is the excellent 6-part series called Moon Machines that covers all that went into the lunar program. Anyone who gets a chance to see this should do so, IMO. After seeing it, it might just have you wondering how humanity ever managed to make it to the Moon and back. I am reasonably sure that the technical challenges were a big part of the reason that the first Moon landing was delayed by a year. I have no ideas what the cost overruns were. The same thing is going to happen, I bet, for a return to the Moon and the first human mission to Mars.

And about those cost overruns on JWST - all that tech will eventually make it into the private sector just like the tech from the Moon missions made it into the private sector, too, and will provide some return on investment.
Now that we built the JWST, if it's successful the only real limit to the size of space telecopes we can build is what we can fit onto rockets.
Whether we need more space telescopes is going to depend on what wavelengths of light astronomers want to see and how tranparent Earth's atmosphere is at those wavelengths. Ground-based telescopes produce better images than Hubble at this point. Specifically, Keck and those on the drawing board, specifically the Thirty Meter Telescope (if it ever gets built) and the E-ELT will produce images that are far better than Keck. I hope I am still around when the E-ELT goes online - its planned for 2024, I believe. These new ground-based scopes are going to be amazing.
 

Lew Zealand

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I'm a space junkie and have been for many decades now. However I have come to realize that a project such as the JWST should not happen any more. It's too big and too complicated and needs to work perfectly. If it does, then hats off to NASA and the people who've worked so long on this but smaller, simpler missions that don't need to be everything to everybody are what need to happen from now on to avoid these endless delays.

During the time it's taken to plan and make this behemoth, NASA also conceived, built, launched and sent to EFFING Pluto the New Horizons spacecraft. And then went on to a new KBO, Ultima Thule.

Just to rub JWST's nose in it.
 

yRaz

Posts: 3,857   +4,047
Whether we need more space telescopes is going to depend on what wavelengths of light astronomers want to see and how tranparent Earth's atmosphere is at those wavelengths. Ground-based telescopes produce better images than Hubble at this point. Specifically, Keck and those on the drawing board, specifically the Thirty Meter Telescope (if it ever gets built) and the E-ELT will produce images that are far better than Keck. I hope I am still around when the E-ELT goes online - its planned for 2024, I believe. These new ground-based scopes are going to be amazing.
One reason we will need more space telescopes is that satillites pass over our ground based telescopes. If they are at the right angle they can reflect the sun's light and completely ruin the exposure. We are only going to have more satellites over time. There might come a time where getting exposures on ground based telescopes is more expensive than running space telescopes 24/7.
 

Uncle Al

Posts: 8,254   +7,025
Iḿ a little surprised that Space-X didn´t fight to get this contract or is it too large a payload for their rockets?

Wonder if the next ¨big¨ project will be to position a similar telescope at the edge of our own solar system so it can look out even further? Or perhaps one that will rove through the universe, sending back pictures of anything it finds?
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 6,581   +4,987
One reason we will need more space telescopes is that satillites pass over our ground based telescopes. If they are at the right angle they can reflect the sun's light and completely ruin the exposure. We are only going to have more satellites over time. There might come a time where getting exposures on ground based telescopes is more expensive than running space telescopes 24/7.
Speaking of SpaceX and Starlink. :( I do not know how much image stacking is used in professional observatories, however, if it is used, they could simply get rid of the offending frames (assuming every frame is not affected). Image stacking is commonly used in amateur astrophotography, and presumably not every frame would be affected. As you likely know, "bad frames" are commonly discarded anyway, and the degradation of the final image from an offensive satellite passing overhead would probably not be that severe. However, it remains to be seen.

If it did get that bad, with the amount of money spent on scopes like Keck, TMT, and E-ELT, I bet there would be a vast outcry from the scientific community if space "junk" were to get so bad as to ruin observation from ground-based professional observatories.
 

wiyosaya

Posts: 6,581   +4,987
I'm a space junkie and have been for many decades now. However I have come to realize that a project such as the JWST should not happen any more. It's too big and too complicated and needs to work perfectly. If it does, then hats off to NASA and the people who've worked so long on this but smaller, simpler missions that don't need to be everything to everybody are what need to happen from now on to avoid these endless delays.

During the time it's taken to plan and make this behemoth, NASA also conceived, built, launched and sent to EFFING Pluto the New Horizons spacecraft. And then went on to a new KBO, Ultima Thule.
I am not sure I get your point here. These are completely different missions. Yes, New Horizons was technically difficult, and I am sure that it also encountered delays. Space exploration is ripe with not-invented-yet technology and, at least as I see it, will have a component of not-yet-invented technology for the foreseeable future. Ultima Thule just happened to be in the right place for New Horizons to visit it. IMO, Ultima Thule was a bonus for the mission that did not present any new requirements or requirements that were outside of the mission capabilities. Had Ultima Thule been outside of mission capabilities, New Horizions would not have been able to visit it.
Just to rub JWST's nose in it.
To package a mission like JWST into smaller missions stands a high chance of not even being technically feasible. The main reason is that JWST's primary mirror is so large. To get the equivalent light gathering power and resolution from smaller space telescopes would require some sort of multiple mirror array that would form an interferometer in space and would require multiple smaller telescopes to fly in an array in space with nanometer alignment precision - because of the observing wavelength requirements of the mission. The other possibility is a multiple mirror single spacecraft somewhat like the Giant Magellan Telescope. (Observatories like GMT and the others I mentioned are also technically challenging and include, to the best of my knowledge, not-invented-yet technology even though they are ground-based.) I don't really know the technical feasibilty of such an arrangement, I.e., an interferometer, for a spacecraft, but my guess is that it would not be less expensive and less technically difficult than JWST.

The Keck observatory tried a ground-based version of an interferometer using only its two 10-Meter scopes. For whatever reason, the use of the Keck Interferometer was discontinued in 2012 - I don't know why it was discontinued. https://science.nasa.gov/missions/keck/
 

Lew Zealand

Posts: 1,955   +2,268
TechSpot Elite
I am not sure I get your point here.

The point is that the return on an extremely large, delayed, and over budget product is less than spending the equivalent money on multiple smaller, manageable projects that stay close to budget and timeline. NASA can't do big budget any more— the pie in the sky Moon missions won't happen. What NASA is very capable of doing is medium and smaller budget projects, like New Horizons and Mars missions.

I get that JWST is targeted at IR astronomy that we can't get to easily thanks to stupid water vapor in the atmosphere, but they aimed too big with it. A smaller and less complicated telescope or 2 or 3, each for different purposes likely would be in Earth orbit or Lagrange by now.
 

neeyik

Posts: 1,881   +2,199
Staff member
I wouldn't say it has gone poorly, the problem is that so much new technology had to be invented for us to build it. We can say we're going to build a folding 6.5 meter space telescope all we want, that doesn't mean we have the tech to do so. After reading about the engineering hurdles they had to overcome it's amazing we were able to build it at all.

Now that we built the JWST, if it's successful the only real limit to the size of space telecopes we can build is what we can fit onto rockets.
I'm not suggesting the telescope itself nor the engineering behind it has been poor - far from it. But as publicly funded project, the budget and launch schedule estimates were woefully optimistic: so far, it's cost a factor of 10 times more than initially projected to develop and is currently 14 years beyond the first projected launch date in 2007. I've worked in engineering long enough to know that budgets and schedules nearly always change over the course of a project, but NASA has had to sink a significant portion of its total budget in the JWST, and almost certainly to the detriment of other projects.

It's also an extremely high risk venture - it's pretty much all or nothing, with regards to the mission objects and expected operational outcomes. HST was also over budget and schedule, and famously fired up almost as a dead duck. But it was rescued because of the choice of orbit: JWST has no such luxury. When the likes of Spitzer, which lasted 19 years and had an estimated total cost of $0.7b, and HST which is still going after 30 years for well over $15b total cost, the expectations of JWST are going to be so high that it may well never achieve them. After all, it hasn't even left the ground yet and it's cost more than HST did in its first 15 years of operating.

For whatever reason, the use of the Keck Interferometer was discontinued in 2012 - I don't know why it was discontinued.
Less-than-hoped results and cultural/political/environmental tensions on the island are the main reasons why NASA cut funding.
 

yRaz

Posts: 3,857   +4,047
I'm not suggesting the telescope itself nor the engineering behind it has been poor - far from it. But as publicly funded project, the budget and launch schedule estimates were woefully optimistic: so far, it's cost a factor of 10 times more than initially projected to develop and is currently 14 years beyond the first projected launch date in 2007. I've worked in engineering long enough to know that budgets and schedules nearly always change over the course of a project, but NASA has had to sink a significant portion of its total budget in the JWST, and almost certainly to the detriment of other projects.

It's also an extremely high risk venture - it's pretty much all or nothing, with regards to the mission objects and expected operational outcomes. HST was also over budget and schedule, and famously fired up almost as a dead duck. But it was rescued because of the choice of orbit: JWST has no such luxury. When the likes of Spitzer, which lasted 19 years and had an estimated total cost of $0.7b, and HST which is still going after 30 years for well over $15b total cost, the expectations of JWST are going to be so high that it may well never achieve them. After all, it hasn't even left the ground yet and it's cost more than HST did in its first 15 years of operating.
The cost of the JWST is but a fraction of what the public has spent on failed wars in the last 20 years. We could build 100 JWST's with the development budget of the f-35 alone, that's before the cost of building each one.
Speaking of SpaceX and Starlink. :( I do not know how much image stacking is used in professional observatories, however, if it is used, they could simply get rid of the offending frames (assuming every frame is not affected). Image stacking is commonly used in amateur astrophotography, and presumably not every frame would be affected. As you likely know, "bad frames" are commonly discarded anyway, and the degradation of the final image from an offensive satellite passing overhead would probably not be that severe. However, it remains to be seen.

If it did get that bad, with the amount of money spent on scopes like Keck, TMT, and E-ELT, I bet there would be a vast outcry from the scientific community if space "junk" were to get so bad as to ruin observation from ground-based professional observatories.

Many telescopes have exposures of days or weeks, not minutes. Just think of the Ultra Deep Field image from hubble
 

neeyik

Posts: 1,881   +2,199
Staff member
The cost of the JWST is but a fraction of what the public has spent on failed wars in the last 20 years. We could build 100 JWST's with the development budget of the f-35 alone, that's before the cost of building each one.
True and one could even point out that the population of the USA spends similar amounts on chocolate each year. But it's not really the gross amount spent that NASA's been criticized over but more the issue with how that budget has been managed (or not, as the case seems to be on face value) for such a high-risk, high-gain venture.

If one takes a look a New Horizons ($0.5b development & launch costs, $0.25b for 12 years of mission costs), it was clearly a similarly high-risk project (although significantly less gain, I feel). It was, though, pretty well managed from start to end, taking around 5 years to go from initial project to launch (with half that time spent just securing funding). While it's not a great comparison, JWST is now at $9.7b for dev & launch, roughly $1b for 10 years of mission costs, and currently at 23 years from the start of the initial NGST project.

Not great figures to look at...but there again, neither was HST's and look where we're at with that one.
 

yRaz

Posts: 3,857   +4,047
True and one could even point out that the population of the USA spends similar amounts on chocolate each year. But it's not really the gross amount spent that NASA's been criticized over but more the issue with how that budget has been managed (or not, as the case seems to be on face value) for such a high-risk, high-gain venture.
Budget management is a whole other can of worms if you wish to bring that up. There is an extensive amount of money being mismanaged in hundreds of other industries that have no promise of a scientific return. In my line of work I frequently see tens of thousands of dollars get wasted in several seconds due to incompetence. The fact of the matter is our prediction of how much it would cost to invent these new technologies vs how much it actually cost wasn't necessary due to incompetence. I'd argue that this is a case of "fusion is only 30 years away". We understand how it SHOULD work but not how it ACTUALLY works.