The James Webb Space Telescope being developed by NASA is set to be one the most exciting space observatories ever developed!, with totally novel technologies and instruments that will give us new insights into our universe. But unfortunately, its completion and launch has been delayed. Again. What’s goin’ on? The initial completion window for the James Webb Space Telescope, or JWST, was supposed to be between 2007 and 2011.
There were some pretty severe budget and schedule issues, resulting in a 2011 overhaul of the project that set a new completion date for October of 2018. That turned out to be a little too optimistic, so they pushed it back to May of 2020, and now here we are with another new hopeful finish line of March, 2021. This telescope is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, so this is the kind of telescope we send out into space. All by itself! This is where some of the complexities start. James webb Telescope launch delayed
Once launched, the JWST will be out of reach of the NASA team completely, unreachable even by robotic missions. This makes it significantly more complicated than the Hubble which we can service. After JWST heads out into the great unknown, that’s it, so we’ve kinda gotta get all its features right before we say goodbye. And this is kinda hard, because James Webb is most complicated space observatory we’ve ever built. It’s huge, it has be super sensitive, and most of its diagnostics are brand new. For example, its sunshield, which keeps the telescope at the ideal temperature (below 50 Kelvin) is the size of a tennis court and consists of five individual layers.
It was actually a small tear in this key piece that was part of the most recent delay. And then there’s the telescope’s primary mirror, called the Optical Telescope Element, or OTE. This gathers the light coming into the telescope from space so the other scientific instruments on board can measure it. The OTE is exciting–and difficult–because a mirror that detects these kinds of signals needs to be large, but a mirror this large has never been launched into space before.
In fact, it’s almost 7 times larger than Hubble’s mirror, but NASA has engineered it to still be lighter than the Hubble mirror per unit area, so that’s a big innovation. AND it’s super strong. AND..it folds! This gold-plated mirror actually folds up so it can fit into the launch rocket, and then it will unfurl once in space. It also just looks REALLY cool too, like a giant, shiny golden honeycomb. To round it all off, most of the scientific instruments on board are totally new. James webb Telescope launch delayed
Some will observe light on the visible and infrared spectra, trying to capture objects and events that are too distant or too old to be observed by other instruments.
One of the machines needs a cryocooler to keep it at a frosty 7 Kelvin so it works properly. And keep in mind, we have to make sure all of these new and exciting scientific tools will function and transmit data properly for 5-10 years after JWST launches, because once it’s out there…we can never touch it again. But if we can accomplish all of this, we hope it will offer us back here on earth never-before-seen resolution of space and will help us see traces of some of the most distant events and objects in our universe–like the very creation of galaxies, stars, and planets. It’ll basically be like looking back in time.
Its launch could mark a new era in astrophysics. That is, when it ever gets off the ground. Hey, maybe the JWST is delayed NOW, but if you’re watching from the future we hope you’re still subscribed to Seeker to be keeping up with all the things we’re learning from it. Like this video over here about about how NASA uses origami for it’s engineering. Also FYI, the JWST isn’t just a NASA job–the Canadian and European Space agencies are also in on the project, because let’s be real, space brings us all together.