NASA still has some work to do with the James Webb Space Telescope. The space agency delays the launch of the upcoming telescope from spring 2019 to May 2021.

NASA says that all of the flight hardware is fully complete. However, the delay happened due to the need for more testing of the telescope’s intricate systems and setbacks, including tears in the tennis-court-size sun shield the space agency announced today (March 27).

“All the observatory’s flight hardware is now complete; however, the issues brought to light with the spacecraft element are prompting us to take the necessary steps to refocus our efforts on the completion of this ambitious and complex observatory,” NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.

The long-delayed telescope has been in development for more than two decades now. The telescope’s $8.8 billion price tag could rise, too, NASA officials told reporters today.

Price of the James Webb Space Telescope

JWST was originally expected to cost between $1 billion and $3.5 billion, with a launch date scheduled for sometime between 2007 and 2011. However, throughout the early 2000s, the cost of the project grew to $4.5 billion. Then, after a postponement, in 2011 NASA replanned the JWST program, thus, setting a new launch date for 2018. So, this time the Congress capped the cost of the telescope’s development at $8 billion.

But again, NASA pushed the JWST’s launch date to spring 2019. Now, NASA says it will soon provide an estimate on how much this latest delay will exceed the $8 billion cap. So, the Congress will need to reauthorize the program in order for it to move forward.

The Delay

During the conference today, NASA members said the testing of some parts of the hardware has taken longer than expected; for instance, rather than taking two weeks to deploy for the first time and a month to fold and stow, the sun shield took a month to deploy and two months to fold and stow.

The hardware mishaps also contributed to the schedule delays. The cables that pull the sun shield into place had too much slack. Thus, leading to a snagging hazard and seven small tears forming within the shield’s five independent membranes; the largest two were 4 inches (10 centimeters) across, Andrucyk said.

In addition, “primarily in the propulsion system, we’ve had a schedule delay due to a transducer that was incorrectly powered; we needed to replace that. That resulted in a three-month hit,” he added. “An incorrect solvent was run through the propulsion system; as a result, we wound up having to replace valves in that system, and a catalyst bed heater was accidentally overstressed and needed to be replaced. Those [issues] are avoidable errors, but in developing very complex systems, those things do happen.”

Scientists recently completed the testing of the assembled instruments and mirrors in an enormous cryo-vacuum chamber at Johnson Space Center in Houston. Then, they transported the telescope to Northrop Grumman’s facility in California for final assembly with its tennis-court-size sun shield and spacecraft bus.

JWST’s Launch

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana. Then, take 30 days to fly a million miles to its permanent home: a Lagrange point, or a gravitationally stable location in space.

It will orbit around L2, a spot in space near Earth that lies opposite from the sun. This has been a popular spot for several other space telescopes, including the Herschel Space Telescope and the Planck Space Observatory.

If everything goes as planned, the telescope will be entitled as the most powerful space observatory in the world. That is thanks to its 18 beryllium hexagon pieces, all of which are coated with a thin layer of gold.

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Thumbnail image: The James Webb Telescope. Credit: NASA