James Webb Space Telescope: Launch May Likely Be Delayed Again, U.S. Government Warns

The Government Accountability Office wrote in a report that technical hitches could make the telescope's June, 2019, launch target 'unachievable.'

James Webb Space Telescope: Launch May Likely Be Delayed Again, U.S. Government Warns
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The Government Accountability Office wrote in a report that technical hitches could make the telescope's June, 2019, launch target 'unachievable.'

A new report from a non-partisan U.S. government office suggests that there’s a good chance the James Webb Space Telescope’s launch, which was originally scheduled to take place this year, may be delayed once again.

In a report published on Wednesday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) stressed that a variety of technical and logistical issues make it very unlikely that the Webb telescope will meet NASA’s current launch target of March to June, 2019.

“Given several ongoing technical issues, and the work remaining to test the spacecraft element and complete integration of the telescope and spacecraft, combined with continuing slower-than-planned work at Northrop Grumman, we believe that the rescheduled launch window is likely unachievable,” the GAO wrote.

As summarized by Ars Technica, the GAO report noted that work on the James Webb Space Telescope has been held back by a number of hitches, including a serious “snag” in one of the six membrane tensioning systems that allow the telescope’s sunshield to be deployed, and problems with the spacecraft element’s thrusters, where eight of its 16 valves were found to be leaking “beyond acceptable levels.” According to contractor Northrop Grumman, the latter issue was likely related to human error, as technicians had to examine, refurbish, and reattach each thruster module, which Ars Technica pointed out resulted in “months of delays.”

Although the GAO stated that Northrop Grumman now has three daily work shifts instead of two, with technicians working on the spacecraft integration process around the clock, the aforementioned hitches have left the James Webb Space Telescope with only 1.5 months of schedule reserve remaining. With a good chance of additional delays and the money required to pay the talent behind the project, this could mean the telescope could go over the budget cap the U.S. Congress had set for it.

The James Webb Space Telescope was once projected to launch in October, 2018, but in September, 2017, NASA announced a five-to-eight-month project delay, once again citing problems integrating the spacecraft and telescope components. In a statement, NASA Science Mission Directorate associate administrator Thomas Zurbuchen stressed that the delays were not related to issues with hardware or technical performance, but rather because the integration process was “taking longer than expected.”

Regardless of when the James Webb Space Telescope launches, NASA has big plans for the project. According to Fox News, Mars will be among the space agency’s top priorities, as officials hope that the telescope will gather more information on why the planet, which is believed to have hosted a deep ocean billions of years ago, had lost a great amount of water since then. NASA expects Mars to become visible to the Webb telescope sometime between May and September, 2020, about a year after its projected launch schedule.

With the GAO report doubting whether the James Webb Space Telescope’s current target launch window could be met, the project’s managing board is scheduled to meet in the near future, in order to determine whether it is still plausible to launch the telescope no later than June, 2019.