from the hurricane-blew-schedule-out-of-the-water dept.
A government watchdog is warning that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the long-awaited successor to the Hubble that's been beset by schedule snafus and cost overruns, might face further delays. NASA announced in September it had pushed back the launch date of the JWST from late 2018 to some time in the spring of 2019 due to testing delays partly blamed on Hurricane Harvey's impact on Texas' Gulf Coast in August.
On Wednesday, lawmakers on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee were told it could take even longer to launch the world's most powerful telescope. "More delays are possible given the risks associated with the work ahead and the level of schedule reserves that are now (below) what's recommended," said Cristina Chaplain, director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management for the Government Accountability Office.
[...] Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator for science missions, told lawmakers he expects the space agency will be able to meet the spring 2019 schedule. "I believe it's achievable," he said.
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JWST passed its final vibration testing Tuesday ensuring that the craft is finally fit for spaceflight. NASA has scheduled the telescope for an October 2018 launch, but the telescope was originally supposed to be launched in 2011 marking a long history of major cost overruns and delays.
NASA announced last December that the JWST was halfway completed, but the project is currently $7.2 billion over its initial budget and seven years behind the original schedule. The JWST was initially projected to cost $1.6 billion. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) now estimates the final cost of the telescope at $8.8 billion.
[...] During vibration testing in December at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, 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.
The first launch of the SLS has slipped again:
NASA has decided it must delay the maiden flight of its Space Launch System rocket, presently scheduled for November 2018, until at least early 2019. This decision was widely expected due to several problems with the rocket, Orion spacecraft, and ground launch systems. The delay was confirmed in a letter from a NASA official released Thursday by the US Government Accountability Office.
The Falcon Heavy will be able to deliver payloads that are similar to what SLS Block 1 can carry:
In its maiden flight configuration, named Block 1, the heavy-lifter will be able to haul up to 77 tons (70 metric tons) of cargo to low Earth orbit, more than double the capacity of the most powerful launcher flying today — United Launch Alliance's Delta 4-Heavy. The Block 1 version of SLS will fly with an upper stage propelled by an Aerojet Rocketdyne RL10 engine, based on the Delta 4's second stage.
SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket, scheduled to make its first flight later this year, will come in just shy of the SLS Block 1's capacity if the commercial space company gave up recovering its booster stages.
NASA plans to introduce a bigger four-engine second stage on the EM-2 launch, a configuration of the SLS named Block 1B.
The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has been delayed yet again:
The launch of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been rescheduled to occur sometime between March and June 2019 from French Guiana. The delay follows a schedule assessment of the remaining integration and test activities that need to occur prior to launch. The JWST was previously scheduled to launch in October 2018. "The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, said in a NASA press release. "Rather, the integration of the various spacecraft elements is taking longer than expected."
The change in launch window request has been coordinated with the European Space Agency (ESA), which is providing the Ariane 5 launch vehicle for the JWST. As part of an agreement with ESA, NASA recently conducted a routine schedule assessment to ensure launch preparedness and determined that a reschedule was necessary.
While testing of the telescope and science instruments at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, continues to go well and remain on schedule, the spacecraft itself, made up of the spacecraft bus and sunshield, has experienced delays during its integration and testing at Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California. "Webb's spacecraft and sunshield are larger and more complex than most spacecraft," said Eric Smith, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "The combination of some integration activities taking longer than initially planned, such as the installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer. Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systematically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch."
An upside? A better chance of being prepared to image Planet Nine during the 5-10 year operating life of JWST.
Also at NASA.
A Government Accountability Office report has found that the U.S. is unlikely to produce enough Plutonium-238 for NASA missions about a decade from now. The isotope has been used in radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) on missions such as Voyager, Cassini, and the Mars Science Laboratory:
Another GAO report notes: "[...], DOE currently maintains about 35 kilograms (kg) [77 pounds] of Pu-238 isotope designated for NASA missions, about half of which meets power specifications for spaceflight. However, given NASA's current plans for solar system exploration, this supply could be exhausted within the next decade."
[...] To address the plutonium problem, in 2011 NASA provided funding to the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart domestic production of the substance. The program is called the Pu-238 Supply Project. So far, the Project has produced ∼3.5 ounces (100 grams) of Pu-238. DOE identified an interim goal of producing 10 to 17.5 ounces (300 to 500 grams) of new Pu-238 per year by 2019. The goal is to produce 1.5 kilograms of new Pu-238 per year—considered full production—by 2023, at the earliest.
GAO is questioning the Supply Project's ability to meet its goal of producing 1.5 kilograms of new Pu-238 per year by 2026. For one thing, the oversight agency's interviews with DOE officials revealed that the agency hasn't perfected the chemical processing required to extract new Pu-238 from irradiated targets to meet production goals.
Only one DOE reactor is currently qualified to make Pu-238:
NASA's plutonium will be produced at two of these reactors, but only one of them is currently qualified to make Pu-238. GAO reported that initial samples of the new Pu-238 did not meet spaceflight specifications because of impurities. However, according to DOE, the samples can be blended and used with existing Pu-238.
The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) may have some of its capabilities scaled back due to overspending on the James Webb Space Telescope and the added cost of a coronagraph that was demanded by exoplanet researchers:
NASA will have to scale back its next big orbiting observatory to avoid busting its budget and affecting other missions, an independent panel says. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is due for launch in the mid-2020s. But 1 year after NASA gave the greenlight its projected cost is $3.6 billion, roughly 12% overbudget. "I believe reductions in scope and complexity are needed," Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C., wrote in a memo that NASA released last Thursday.
Designed to investigate the nature of dark energy and study exoplanets, WFIRST was chosen by the astronomy community as its top space-based mission priority in the 2010 decadal survey entitled New Worlds, New Horizons in Astronomy and Astrophysics. But the start of the project was initially delayed by the huge overspend on its predecessor, the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launched in 2019. Then last year, a midterm review of the 2010 decadal survey warned that WFIRST could go the same way and advised NASA to form a panel of independent experts to review the project.
[...] Zurbuchen's memo to Scolese directs the lab to retain the basic elements of the mission—the 2.4-meter mirror, widefield camera, and coronagraph—but to seek cost-saving "reductions." Hertz says this will require reducing the capabilities of instruments but ensuring they remain "above the science floor laid down by the decadal survey." The coronagraph will be recategorized as a "technology demonstration instrument," removing the burden of achieving a scientific target. The change will also save money, Hertz explains. Hertz says exoplanet researchers shouldn't worry about the proposed changes. "We know we'll get good science out of the coronagraph. We'll be able to see debris disks, zodiacal dust, and exoplanets in wide orbits," he says. Astronomers wanting to see Earth twins in the habitable zone may be disappointed, however.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), an infrared space observatory with an $8.8 billion budget, will be transported to South America to launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket, presumably in Spring 2019. The JWST was not intended to be serviceable at the Earth-Sun L2 point. Will there still be a "Golden Age of astronomy" even if the JWST fails?
[Due] to its steadily escalating cost and continually delayed send-off (which recently slipped from 2018 to 2019), this telescopic time machine is now under increasingly intense congressional scrutiny. To help satisfy any doubts about JWST's status, the project is headed for an independent review as soon as January 2018, advised NASA's science chief Thomas Zurbuchen during an early December congressional hearing. Pressed by legislators about whether JWST will actually launch as presently planned in spring of 2019, he said, "at this moment in time, with the information that I have, I believe it's achievable."
[...] Simply launching JWST is fraught with peril, not to mention unfurling its delicate sunshield and vast, segmented mirror in deep space. Just waving goodbye to JWST atop its booster will be a nail-biter. "The truth is, every single rocket launch off of planet Earth is risky. The good news is that the Ariane 5 has a spectacular record," says former astronaut John Grunsfeld, a repeat "Hubble hugger" who made three space-shuttle visits to low-Earth orbit to renovate that iconic facility. Now scientist emeritus at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, he sees an on-duty JWST as cranking out science "beyond all of our expectations."
"Assuming we make it to the injection trajectory to Earth-Sun L2, of course the next most risky thing is deploying the telescope. And unlike Hubble we can't go out and fix it. Not even a robot can go out and fix it. So we're taking a great risk, but for great reward," Grunsfeld says.