The James Webb Space Telescope is now the “Just Wait Space Telescope.”

NASA has officially delayed the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble’s successor, until no earlier than May 2020. Here is the official report to congress from the Government Accountability Office. That’s nearly a year later than originally planned due to the need for more testing of the telescope’s intricate systems. Aaaaaaand there have been multiple setbacks and even more delays… including tears in its tennis-court-size sunshield. This announcement came March 27th.


Artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope in space. - courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute

Artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope in space. – courtesy Space Telescope Science Institute


 So What’s Going On?

There are 2 main components to the flight hardware of this intricate system:

  1. The 1st is the observatory, including the optics & scientific instrumentation.
  2. The 2nd is the massive sunshield & spacecraft bus.

The observatory has been completed and fully tested at the Goddard Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center. That part is fine. No worries!

The spacecraft bus and sunshield are also completed… but they’re undergoing testing at the moment to make sure they can survive the vacuum of space and also the process of getting there in the first place. Basically… some very smart people are shaking it really hard to ensure no space nuts & bolts fall out.

Both of these components are now in California at the Northrop Grumman Facility (click here to see the very involved process of moving this thing across the country) where they are going to be put together into one giant and fully assembled space telescope. It will then be boated to it’s launch port in French Guiana.

In short… the problem is with the sunshield. There have been multiple testing processes to make sure the sun shield folds and unfolds correctly. This process has had multiple complications and delays. It’s basically taking twice the amount of time to complete this testing process than originally thought. This stuff is pretty hard. In my mind… that’s OK! Take as much time as you need to make sure the JWST works efficiently the first time.

If something breaks in space… we’ll be unable to get up there and fix it. But this extra time and effort is costing money. Quite a bit of it actually… and no one reading this will ever make this within their lifetime. Sorry about that, dear reader.

The sunshield is massive! About the size of a tennis court. You can see one of the sunshield tests in the video above taken in 2014 – courtesy James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

The sunshielding tension system became too slack during the deployment and became a snagging danger and had to be adjusted. On top of that, seven small tears developed during the testing… and there were propellant leaks in the propellant systems… and it popped a space tire and needed to go to the space auto shop… all kinds of problems during testing.  But all of this testing is vital. NASA engineers are essentially shaking the JWST as hard as they can to ensure it works when we rocket this thing into space.

NASA is saying they need more time to reach the 70% confidence level of a successful mission. They feel they can hit that big 7-0 by May of 2020.

You may be asking… “why don’t they have a confidence level of like 90% or 100%?” Well simply… scientists can be perfectionists. It would frankly take too much money and time to reach that kind of confidence level on big projects like this. The JWST mission confidence rivals that of the Hubble Space Telescope or International Space Station! So we’re basically fine with 70%.

But we need to keep testing. Failure is not an option. Too much time and money has already been invested. Considerable progress has been made but challenges are still ahead.


Am I worried? Yes… well maybe

The biggest threat is that the mission will almost certainly go well over the $8 billion mark now. That’s a significant chunk of change. The telescope was originally estimated to cost $1.6 billion (that seems so long ago) but the estimate grew throughout the early development reaching about $5 billion by the time the mission was formally confirmed for construction back in 2008. The total cost is expected to reach $10 billion.

And now we’re up to eight. If NASA needs to spend one dollar more on the JWST… then it will go to congress to decide the fate of the project. Congress will have to allocate the $$$ to NASA and the JWST or they will shut the project down completely.

This is what happened back in the ’90s when congress had to choose between having the International Space Station or the Superconducting Super Collider. Since they decided it wasn’t with flipping the bill for both… they obviously chose the ISS.

NASA expects to have a new cost analysis out very soon. It will be very expensive, and it has been already.


My Top 6 Favorite Awesome Things About The James Webb Space Telescope

So I’ve talked a lot about the ‘suck‘ that’s been going on with the JWST. But the ‘awesome‘ still far outweighs all the setbacks! So let’s talk about all the good it will do.

This is a flippin’ sweet space telescope! It will be the best and most sophisticated telescope humans will have developed to date. It would make Galileo and Hans Lippershey blush. Here are my top reasons why this thing gets me so geeked out:


  1. It’s a freaking Transformer… no thanks to Starscream!

    Detailing timeline of events pictured above right HERE

    Because the JWST is so huge when it’s in final telescope form… it could never fit inside the rocket that will shoot this expensive payload into the depths of space where it’ll eventually rest in gravitational orbit. So it’ll be super folded up. There’s a lot more folding steps here than in one of those beautiful origami swans. When it arrives to its destination in space… it unfolds in over 10,000 different little ways (that leaves a lot of room for things to go wrong during this long process… that makes me nervous).

    This is way too far away to see this process in real time… but thankfully our wonderful NASA friends have provided us this stellar animation of what that ‘unfolding’ will look like below, featuring cool space music (ha… get it!? Stellar because space… I’m funny):

  2. The JWST Mission will operate 1 million miles from Earth!
    Lagrange Points.

    Lagrange Points. – courtesy NASA

    That’s about 4 times farther away than Earth is from the moon.

    The JWST will actually orbit the sun and not Earth. Simply put… that is a simplification. It’ll actually be in the relative stationary Sun-Earth LaGrange point 2.

    It will take roughly 30 days for Webb to reach the start of its orbit at L2, but it will take less than a day to get far away from Earth and much of the way there.

    We have one chance to build it correctly. One! We can’t just rocket a space-mechanic out there to replace a space-flat tire on the JWST. We have one single chance to get it right and that’s it. That’s tense!

    Webb will orbit the sun 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) away from the Earth at what is called the second Lagrange point or L2. (Note that these graphics are not to scale.) – courtesy NASA

  3. We’ll be able to see Planets orbiting Stars throughout the Galaxy

    Individual planets!

    If the JWST was 25 light years away… it could see Earth. It will be able to detect the chemical position of very far away planets. It can peer into stellar nurseries to see planets as they form. Watch solar systems forming in galaxies! Maybe that will lead to finding life elsewhere in the universe

  4. It is HUGE

    The mirror on the JWST is 7-and-a-half times larger than the mirror on the Hubble Space Telescope.

Webb Telescope's scientists and engineers determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters (21 feet 4 inches) across is what was needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies. Building a mirror this large is challenging, even for use on the ground. A mirror this large has never before been launched into space!

Webb Telescope’s scientists and engineers determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters (21 feet 4 inches) across is what was needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies. Building a mirror this large is challenging, even for use on the ground. A mirror this large has never before been launched into space!

The heat shield (sunshield) is the size of a tennis court.

Webb's sunshield is about 22 meters by 12 meters (69.5 ft x 46.5 ft). It's about half as big as a 737 aircraft. The sunshield is about the size of a tennis court.

Webb’s sunshield is about 22 meters by 12 meters (69.5 ft x 46.5 ft). It’s about half as big as a 737 aircraft. The sunshield is about the size of a tennis court. – courtesy NASA


5. The JWST is a Time Machine!


Well sort of… it will be able to see into our galaxy’s past… 13.4 billion years ago… no DeLorean required. This is especially impressive because the universe is 13.7 billion years old.

We’ll be able to see the Milky Way’s first galaxies form within our universe… the first nebulae and stars! We’ll be scrolling through photo albums of the universe’s baby pictures. We’ll get to basically play with the most powerful camera in history. Great Scott!

So you may be asking…. ” hey, bro! How can a giant space telescope the size of Serena Williams’s playground be able to see into the past?” Well, dear viewer, in theory… it gets rather difficult to follow. But the core understanding is actually a fairly easy-to-get idea.

The speed of light… there is nothing faster… unless you’re talking about tachyons… which I am not going to do here because I don’t understand them.

Let’s first talk about the speed of light relationship between the sun and Earth. The light/solar radiation/photons created by our sun from the nuclear fusion of hydrogen atoms that create helium atoms. I won’t talk about the interesting complexities here in too much detail… but it basically takes about 8 MINUTES to travel from the sun’s surface to us on Earth. Physically speaking, Earth is about 91 million miles away from the sun at perihelion in January. It takes light about 8 Earth minutes to travel that ~91 million miles. So every day on Earth, small particles of light are illuminating that bright beach here, or that skyscraper there, or hitting you right in the face. Neat! Hopefully you’re wearing sunscreen.

For comparison’s sake (but it’s ludicrous to compare anything to light speed.) the fastest car manufactured, the Hennessey Venom F5 (great name) is the fastest with an estimated top speed of 301 mph. That’s 100 mph faster than even the ‘weakest’ EF-5 tornado (EF Scale). Both a car, a tornado or anything we consider as fast on Earth (other than light) can’t compare to light. The speed of light is 299,792,458 meters per second! That is 670,616,629.38 miles per hour. Just a little faster than a car, I’d say. Even the speed of sound, at 343 meters per second in dry air and with a temperature of 20 degrees C, is waaaaaaaaay slower.

Looking at this fact of physics another way… since it takes 8 minutes for light from the sun to travel to us on Earth… we are seeing the sun exactly as it was 8 minutes ago… there’s your time travel! We are looking 8 minutes back in time at the sun. Put in another way… the sun is 8 light minutes away from us. So if some black hole decided to instantly gobble up the sun… we wouldn’t notice it wasn’t there for 8 minutes (but that is indeed quite unlikely). Whoa!

Now with the Webb… we are talking looking back a lot longer than 8 minutes here. This new telescope will be able to see 13.4 billion light years away… billion with a B. That means we would be able to see light that was 13.4 billion years old. We’d be seeing 13.4 billion years into our universe’s past. I hope this makes sense to you, dear reader and it’s not ‘blowing your mind.’


Seeing back into the cosmos Credit: NASA and and Ann Feild [STScI]

Seeing back into the cosmos Credit: NASA and and Ann Feild [STScI]

You may be asking… “but wait, brah! Why only 13.4 billion years and not 13.7 billion since that’s the age of the universe?” The short answer is: because there’s nothing we can see back that far. Light was created or born 13.4 billion years ago. We can only see things where there is light. So we’d essentially see the universe’s ‘baby pictures’ here when light was first created. This also confirms that our universe does indeed have an age. I was created at one point in time and wasn’t just always there. Double whoa! It doesn’t take a fresh plutonium rod… or banana peels and beer in the DeLorean to see that.


6. It has Gold on it!


James Webb Space Telescope’s primary mirror at NASA Goddard – courtesy NASA. The secondary mirror is the round mirror located at the end of the long booms, which are folded into their launch configuration.

Webb’s mirrors are covered in a microscopically thin layer of gold, which optimizes them for reflecting as infrared light as possible, which is the primary wavelength of light this telescope will observe. So gold is the best choice of metals here!

Webb Telescope’s scientists and engineers determined that a primary mirror 6.5 meters (2′ 4″) across is what was needed to measure the light from these distant galaxies. Building a mirror this large is challenging, even for use on the ground. A mirror this large has never before been launched into space!

The Webb Telescope team decided to make the hexagonal segments from beryllium, which is both strong and light. Each segment weighs approximately 46 pounds. This 6-sided shape means there are no gaps between segments.

Why gold, you may ask? Once a mirror segment’s final shape is corrected for any imaging effects due to cold temperatures, and polishing is complete, a thin coating of that Au is applied. Gold improves the mirror’s reflection of infrared light and is the ideal choice. And not much gold is used for each hexagon at all. That’s an astonishing fact. The mass of gold comes to only 3 grams per segment! Engineers spread that tiny amount of gold across that hole surface of one hexagon in a pretty neat process called vacuum deposition.

The gold used to reflect the light to get the pretty space pictures is among the cheaper parts on the Telescope. The price of gold on March 31st, 2018 is now up to $42.61 per gram. That comes in at $1,815.61 per hexagonal piece of the mirror. That times 18 slices puts the grand price total of gold at about $32,681.

The amount of gold on each of the mirror’s segments is less than an average 18k wedding ring (about 10 grams) and weighs much less than a golf ball (about 46 grams). Fore!

Avengers Assemble!

Many very smart people from many countries have contributed to make the JWST a reality. NASA, ESA and CSA have collaborated on the telescope since 1996. Scientists from around the world will be able to use the Webb. Below are all of the participating nations:


Final Thoughts

I personally am disappointed in the setbacks. There are money and politics frustrations involved here… as there often is with NASA projects. But this is essentially an all-or-nothing mission. It has to work the 1st time because we’re not going to get this amount of time and money to do another ambitious project like this for a long time.

This is a complex telescope to say the least. So many things have to work perfectly for this mission to succeed. I have no problem with NASA asking for more time and money to get something this important right. But will NASA get the time and money needed from our budget after already many delays from the last decade? That is something I can’t answer.

I realize that many people ask the question: “why are we spending so much money on something that will not help us directly? It’s a complete waste of money sending some new chunk of metal into space. Our tax dollars can be used to better help humanity.”

Those thinkers may be the same people that use a cell phone to upload their new ‘plate-of-food’ photo on Instagram… may not fully realize that your cell phone was made possible from those early thinkers that developed space flight and space technologies. We needed NASA to invent our 1st satellite. And what do cell phones, and google maps, and your Instagram photos need? Satellites!

I respond to those people with this from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson when the issue of money comes up. It’s a lot of money when looking at it by itself. But it’s much smaller compared to the overall budget. And I think it’s a price well paid for the potential here.

I realize we spend a lot of taxpayer money on fixing things. Focusing and improving on bad stuff… and deservedly so. Like fixing a crumbling infrastructure or finding a way to fix the flaws in the medical and pharmaceutical system. But I don’t want to live in a world where we only focus on the bad stuff bias. I think we deserve to reach for some positive things too. The JWST is one of those things.

What if the US government listened to those naysayers in the ’60s? Most Americans at the time didn’t even want to go to the moon. We may have never gotten there. Isn’t that hard to believe? Neil Armstrong may have not uttered one of the most famous quotes in history. And the Apollo 17 astronauts wouldn’t have had the chance to show off their excellent singing skills.

So I will keep my mind and eyes open to space. There’s a big ocean of stuff out there. We have barely even splashed below the surface. Looking to the stars will lead to many great things for us right here on the ground.


More To Know Where to follow News on the JWST


Stay classy, fellow weather nerds.

Meteorologist Joe Hansel

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