No Wine Before Its Time

You may have heard the news from NASA that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will suffer a delay in its launch date to March 30, 2021? In short, the sophisticated spacecraft plus solar shields were not quite up to specifications, requiring additional time for testing.

The JWST is the most celebrated telescope in the making. It is the much-touted “replacement” for the aging (26 year old) Hubble Space Telescope, yet this is hardly a fair comparison. The JWST will have seven times the collecting area of its predecessor and more sophisticated instruments which will enable us to see 13 billion years into the past. This is remarkable as the universe is only 13.7 billion years old. A significant challenge arises because unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST will not be serviceable. It has to survive the agitation of liftoff in a rocket, operate in the bitter cold of space, protect the sensitive astronomical instruments from damaging sunlight, and send data back to Earth on the first try. This is intense.

The design is broken down into two parts: (1) the science instrumentation, and (2) the spacecraft plus solar shields. Scientists across Europe, Canada and the U. S. constructed and tested the four sophisticated scientific instruments. In fact, I was lucky enough to get to serve on the instrument test-team of two of the instruments on two different continents. These are the Mid Infrared Instrument in Europe and the Near Infrared Camera (NIRCam) in the U. S. I participated in cryogenic testing, which involved writing and running code to do quality checks on all aspects of operation to ensure that the physical parts will work up to specifications in below freezing conditions.

In parallel, engineers at Northrop Grumman focussed on constructing the complicated solar sun shields as well as the spacecraft within which the science instrumentation will reside.

In general, problems tend to arise at juncture points, and the story relevant to JWST is no different. It was exactly when the science instrumentation and spacecraft came together that it was discovered that the latter was running a bit behind schedule. In particular, up to 70 fasteners on the spacecraft needed to be tightened up, and the solar shields, which are the sizes of tennis courts, needed to be repaired and to unfurl a bit faster. As we are told, the technology involved exceeds anything that has been done before. The only way forward is to “jump onboard” to help the spacecraft to catch up, which unfortunately will require additional time and finances. The unanimous mantra coming from NASA is that JWST is worth it! Afterall, JWST is 99% built and tested.

Innovation is costly and hard to put a deadline on, but we will do it, and as NASA will give the data freely to the public, the result will change the world.

As the saying goes, “There will be no wine, before its time.”