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posted by Fnord666 on Wednesday March 28 2018, @04:53AM   Printer-friendly
from the no-myopics-lens-this-time dept.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been delayed yet again, due to damage to the spacecraft's thrusters, sunshield, and tension cables:

The slip is not exactly surprising, even though construction and testing of Webb's primary mirror and scientific instruments—its riskiest, most expensive elements—is already complete. These components were delivered in early February to Webb's prime contractor, the aerospace company Northrop Grumman, for further testing and integration with the rest of the telescope. But later that month a report from the Government Accountability Office warned that the company had fallen behind schedule on the supposedly easier parts of the observatory. Valves on the spacecraft's thrusters had sprung leaks after being improperly cleaned, and replacing them had taken the better part of a year. Webb's tennis-court-sized, five-layered folding "sunshield" had also been torn during a test as it unfurled, requiring time-consuming failure analyses and repairs.

NASA will also establish an external Independent Review Board to validate assessments of the telescope's testing:

NASA is establishing an external Independent Review Board (IRB), chaired by Thomas Young, a highly respected NASA and industry veteran who is often called on to chair advisory committees and analyze organizational and technical issues. The IRB findings, which will complement the [Standing Review Board] data, are expected to bolster confidence in NASA's approach to completing the final integration and test phase of the mission, the launch campaign, commissioning, as well as the entire deployment sequence. Both boards' findings and recommendations, as well as the project's input, will be considered by NASA as it defines a more specific launch time frame. NASA will then provide its assessment in a report to Congress this summer.

NASA will work with its partner, ESA (European Space Agency), on a new launch readiness date for the Ariane 5 vehicle that will launch Webb into space. Once a new launch readiness date is determined, NASA will provide a cost estimate that may exceed the projected $8 billion development cost to complete the final phase of testing and prepare for launch. Additional steps to address project challenges include increasing NASA engineering oversight, personnel changes, and new management reporting structures.

NASA will report its progress and the new cost estimate to Congress in June. At this moment in time, NASA doesn't fully know what the final cost of the telescope's development will be, but is now warning that it may exceed its $8 billion budget cap ($8.8 billion including 5 years of operations). The agency will have to get the mission reauthorized by Congress if that is the case.

To Keep NASA's Golden Age Alive, We Need More Telescopes--but Far Less Expensive Ones

The downside of this approach [of launching smaller telescopes] is that highly desirable but extremely expensive flagship telescopes along the lines of Webb must be postponed until the commercial space industry comes fully of age. SpaceX, for example, already launches satellites at one third of the traditional cost, and soon, maybe, that will drop to as little as one fifth. That is a sizable saving by itself.

Cheaper launch services also take the pressure off engineers to relentlessly shave mass from the telescopes themselves by using the lightest and most expensive possible components. Without such a restriction, costs could plausibly be cut by two thirds. Shrinking costs makes a doubling of flagship launch rates feasible. As this commercial revolution continues, an even higher rate of flagship missions could come about. If we embrace such a strategy, the good times needn't stop rolling, and the golden age of astronomy doesn't have to end.

Also at BBC and Nature.

Previously: Launch of James Webb Space Telescope Delayed to Spring 2019
JWST: Too Big to Fail?
GAO: James Webb Space Telescope Launch Date Likely Will be Delayed (Again)


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  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by aristarchus on Wednesday March 28 2018, @07:52AM (9 children)

    by aristarchus (2645) on Wednesday March 28 2018, @07:52AM (#659396) Journal

    So, my dear and exceptionally scientific khallow, where is the private enterprise LaGrange Point Space Telescope project of which you speak? Oh, yes, no profit in it, except for the contracts paid for by taxes. So, clusterfuck, or not even trying to expand human knowledge, since there is no profit in it? Mercenaries can just go and die, as far as I am concerned. If they occasionally take a contract that does expand human knowledge, all well and good. But we should execute them immediately afterwards. We do not want to encourage this kind of Republican behavior. It is bad for humanity, and bad for science.

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  • (Score: 2, Informative) by khallow on Wednesday March 28 2018, @10:03AM (8 children)

    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday March 28 2018, @10:03AM (#659415) Journal

    So, my dear and exceptionally scientific khallow, where is the private enterprise LaGrange Point Space Telescope project of which you speak?

    Why should there be one? I'd assert to the contrary that its absence even as a website is a good indication of the actual cost vs. value of such a project.

    since there is no profit in it

    No profit in any sense. When someone merely speaks of monetary profit as if that were the only reason a private group would ever do something, then I have to wonder why they would ever think that motivations of a public group should be different? This thinking is magical in three ways. First, it ignores that private groups can indeed do these things as well. Someone or some group can put up a JWST-class telescope with their own money. After all, private companies built the JWST in the first place, it would just take a different funding source. And $8 billion isn't out of reach for a lot of potential funding sources.

    Second, we have plenty of examples of private groups who do things that are not-for-profit in the monetary sense, but have sufficient non-monetary value to the people involved that they put their own money and effort into them. If you aren't willing to fund a project with your own money, then why should the rest of us do it? There should be a more compelling reason than a vague, "Space telescopes are cool" aspect to this.

    Third, the JWST just isn't that valuable and has huge opportunity costs - it's very existence displaces other uses of the money. People don't seem to get the point that $8 billion should go a lot further than that. For example, a few things that you can buy with $8 billion:

    • Feed [weforum.org] 50 million Africans for a year.
    • Educate [ed100.org] (the full K-12) almost 66,000 "Average Alexes" in the US or pay for a $30k per year stipend for five years for 50k STEM graduate students.
    • More [nsf.gov] than a year of NSF (National Science Foundation) funding.

    Earth-side telescopes:

    • Roughly 40 pairs [noao.edu] of Keck-class telescopes.
    • The current pricing for eight Extremely Large Telescopes [wikipedia.org], a proposed 40 meter telescope under construction that's currently expected to cost a little over a billion Euro.
    • Somewhere around 20 million 8 inch Dobsonian reflectors [wikipedia.org] (assuming bulk price of $400 per). Could easily give one to every family in California.

    But let's consider space-only possibilities of that $8 billion.

    • Put 4800 metric tons in LEO (Low Earth Orbit) with the Falcon Heavy (~90 launches of 54 tons reusable configuration at $90 million per launch). That's roughly the mass of water in two Olympic-class swimming pools.
    • Construction and launch of somewhere around a dozen Hubble telescope clones (construction cost was somewhere around half a billion dollars plus launch).
    • Construction and launch of somewhere around two dozen Mars Exploration Rovers (construction plus launch cost somewhere around $300 million).
    • Three JWST telescopes launched on Falcon Heavies instead of Delta IV Heavies (two third cost savings from reduced mass optimization, according to related story above).
    • One or two International Space Station clones launched on multiple Falcon Heavies and minus the international cooperation part (which left Russia in the critical path). Maybe even to three such stations in equivalent volume, if one constructs with B330 inflatable modules from Bigelow Aerospace.
    • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Wednesday March 28 2018, @06:10PM (7 children)

      by bob_super (1357) on Wednesday March 28 2018, @06:10PM (#659613)

      Well, 20 million small, or a few really big, telescopes would send most of that money overseas. The $8B spent on JWST are mostly injected into the economy, as income of thousands of people working on the project (minus some money from bonuses leaking to offshore investments, and a few foreign contributions to the platform).

      Hubble/ISS clones would skyrocket in price, even if NASA does have the NRO frames, as modern tech, and not launching on the shuttle, require significant redesigns.
      Not quite sure why you'd launch filled swimming pools into space... Igloo habitats? Aluminium boxes have much better space-to-weight ratios. (grin)

      Teaching and health grants would definitely be good uses.

      Yes there are apparently better uses for that money. But it's sustaining high-tech materials, optical and space research, making it it a lot better than what we all know it would otherwise be allocated for: half of a twelfth aircraft carrier (also local build jobs, but not very high-techend, and very expensive after launch).

      • (Score: 1) by khallow on Wednesday March 28 2018, @08:01PM (6 children)

        by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Wednesday March 28 2018, @08:01PM (#659658) Journal

        The $8B spent on JWST are mostly injected into the economy

        We can always inject money more efficiently than by spending on a space telescope.

        Hubble/ISS clones would skyrocket in price, even if NASA does have the NRO frames, as modern tech, and not launching on the shuttle, require significant redesigns.

        They only require significant redesigns once.

        Yes there are apparently better uses for that money. But it's sustaining high-tech materials, optical and space research, making it it a lot better than what we all know it would otherwise be allocated for: half of a twelfth aircraft carrier (also local build jobs, but not very high-techend, and very expensive after launch).

        Just because there is colossal waste in the military procurement doesn't justify colossal waste in space development.

        • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Thursday March 29 2018, @04:51PM (5 children)

          by bob_super (1357) on Thursday March 29 2018, @04:51PM (#660045)

          > > Hubble/ISS clones would skyrocket in price, even if NASA does have the NRO frames,
          > > as modern tech, and not launching on the shuttle, require significant redesigns.
          > They only require significant redesigns once.

          You must be new to this space thing :)
          There are only two NRO frames, and we do not know whether they are actually identical.
          Even it there were a dozen frames on which to build up, you'd get Zumwalt Syndrome, and probably end up with at most 3 telescopes, and a price tag above the JWST (not that getting 3 wouldn't be a great thing, science-wise).
          It ain't right, but that's just the way it is.

          • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday March 29 2018, @05:41PM (4 children)

            by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 29 2018, @05:41PM (#660088) Journal

            but that's just the way it is

            No, it's not. Let's look at your argument, using the Hubble-clone angle:

            There are only two NRO frames, and we do not know whether they are actually identical.

            Since 12 > 2, we would have to build a bunch of frames anyway. Building 12 identical frames and chucking the two NRO frames is not going to be much more expensive than building 10 and using the two probably inconsistent NRO frames.

            Even it there were a dozen frames on which to build up, you'd get Zumwalt Syndrome, and probably end up with at most 3 telescopes, and a price tag above the JWST (not that getting 3 wouldn't be a great thing, science-wise).

            Why would that happen? We're not designing a completely new vehicle with everything new (which is what happened with the Zumwalt destroyer design). The Hubble already is up there and working, indicating the base design works and the design flaws are well known and addressable. Zumwalt and similar projects failed hard because they made almost everything new at once and were too complex for the contractor to make it all work as planned. That's the JWST in a nutshell - resulting in an order of magnitude increase in the cost and apparently at least a 13 year delay from launch (2007 apparently was the first planned launch date).

            So we're to expect that there will be a "Zumwalt" syndrome when the main development cost will be incorporating modern materials and fixing known problems in an established, working design? Sorry, that's nonsense.

            The whole point of criticism about the JWST is that we can do things very differently. It's not "just the way it is". This feigned helplessness is worthless.

            • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Thursday March 29 2018, @06:33PM (3 children)

              by bob_super (1357) on Thursday March 29 2018, @06:33PM (#660122)

              > incorporating modern materials and fixing known problems in an established, working design

              That IS the crux of the problem.
              You can't just reuse the 40-years-old design of the hubble, because it's designed for specific materials, specific heat and power constraints, specific launcher, specific orbit and shielding ... Even the mirror polishing tools are obsolete and/or discarded.

              So you gotta restart from scratch, with "HST-looking cylinder that fits a 5m fairing, without any unfolding or cryo mess". And once everything restarts from scratch, you get Zumwalted, or worse, SLSed. Which we both agree is the part we need to fix.
              And indeed, the first step to fixing it is to design something cheaper, to be launched for cheaper, so that not everyone rushes in for their once-in-a-career opportunity. Yet, the performance has to exceed the high bar of Hubble. And once one is up, you never know if another one will get the green light, because the elders in DC are short-sighted. They'll be even more short-sighted if each one is slightly different, reducing the benefits of reuse. So everyone wants to be in the first one, just in case, and/or have hooks in the first one to help the second and third not be too different. That delays and raises the cost of the first one... and Zumwalt waltzes in...

              Do you believe that the original designers wanted JWST to be a 9 billion dollars 1-shot, on top of 420 tons of boom-stuff ?

              We know what to fix, but short of getting the NRO to look up, how do you fix it?

              • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:22PM (2 children)

                by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:22PM (#660145) Journal

                You can't just reuse the 40-years-old design of the hubble, because it's designed for specific materials, specific heat and power constraints, specific launcher, specific orbit and shielding ... Even the mirror polishing tools are obsolete and/or discarded.

                Of course, you can. I agree that the heavily mass optimized design will take more work and cost to redesign than it would if it weren't so optimized. But that's far from impossible and it will be cheaper than a fresh start much less JWST-style Zumwalt syndrome. And once you've done that, you can split the cost across 12 telescopes.

                And indeed, the first step to fixing it is to design something cheaper, to be launched for cheaper, so that not everyone rushes in for their once-in-a-career opportunity. Yet, the performance has to exceed the high bar of Hubble. And once one is up, you never know if another one will get the green light, because the elders in DC are short-sighted. They'll be even more short-sighted if each one is slightly different, reducing the benefits of reuse. So everyone wants to be in the first one, just in case, and/or have hooks in the first one to help the second and third not be too different. That delays and raises the cost of the first one... and Zumwalt waltzes in...

                Then don't do that.

                Do you believe that the original designers wanted JWST to be a 9 billion dollars 1-shot, on top of 420 tons of boom-stuff ?

                Yes. There's more profit in that. Keep in mind that most of the checks have already been cashed. JWST has already accomplished most of its pork goals. A good portion of the politicians, businesses, and whatnot don't care if the JWST succeeds or not. They already got theirs.

                We know what to fix, but short of getting the NRO to look up, how do you fix it?

                Already pointed out one obvious way - use economies of scale from making multiple copies. And space telescope building should be a conservative exercise not a Zumwalt-building exercise. It'd be in space already, if it had been based on a more conservative design.

                Funny how you can rationalize throwing away 9 billion USD on a mediocre space telescope, but can't be bothered to rationalize fixing NASA so that 9 billion USD does enormous things in space like it should.

                • (Score: 2) by bob_super on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:44PM (1 child)

                  by bob_super (1357) on Thursday March 29 2018, @07:44PM (#660163)

                  Funny, how you can dismiss the rational explanation of the problem with a "don't do that", and then wave a magic "fixing NASA" wand...

                  A space telescope will cost a tanker-sized boatload of cash regardless of "conservative" or not. And, to convince people to allocate that boatload, you need to tout its much better performance than the next terrestrial Humongously Ginormous Large Telescope. Short of doing interferometry, a bunch of similar telescopes isn't what's needed.

                  As far as pork, at least JWST should have a Hubble-scale impact on the science it's designed for. Beats an aircraft carrier.

                  • (Score: 1) by khallow on Thursday March 29 2018, @09:24PM

                    by khallow (3766) Subscriber Badge on Thursday March 29 2018, @09:24PM (#660205) Journal

                    Funny, how you can dismiss the rational explanation of the problem with a "don't do that", and then wave a magic "fixing NASA" wand...

                    I disagree that the explanation is rational. The Zumwalt syndrome is not inevitable. Don't do that is quite viable. And when you steadfastly refuse to even consider the existence of this simple solution, it makes me wonder why you're bothering. Are you truly not interested in improving one of the great societies of the world or of expanding humanity's understanding of the universe?

                    A space telescope will cost a tanker-sized boatload of cash regardless of "conservative" or not.

                    Number of zeros matters. We can't afford to treat $500-600 million as if it were the same as $9 billion. That economic innumeracy/complacency is a large part of the reason the US is in such trouble on so many fronts in the first place.

                    And, to convince people to allocate that boatload, you need to tout its much better performance than the next terrestrial Humongously Ginormous Large Telescope. Short of doing interferometry, a bunch of similar telescopes isn't what's needed.

                    I not interested in "convincing" people to allocate money for the JWST. I'm interested in having a future in space. This Zumwalt syndrome and several other political dysfunctions have killed much of the value of NASA. Fix them or the alternative will be to give up on NASA sooner or later.

                    As far as pork, at least JWST should have a Hubble-scale impact on the science it's designed for. Beats an aircraft carrier.

                    Again, waste in military spending doesn't justify waste in space exploration and development. I agree that there's a vast amount of waste and corruption in the US military to the level that it is an existential threat to the US. My point though is why should we then be placated by NASA being no more wasteful and corrupt? Why are our expectations so low?

                    Instead, I say that we should have much higher standards for these organizations that we use to secure our future. That means no more $9 billion space telescopes or several hundred billion dollar jet fighters that may be slightly better than what we currently have.