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NASA reschedules launch of Webb Telescope for spring 2019

As Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston begins to warm, everyone can watch the temperature rise on the Webbcam. The overlay on the Webbcam displays the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, degrees Celsius, and on the Kelvin scale. The chamber temperature displayed is the average helium shroud temperature, and it is approximated based on chamber test parameters. Photo Credit: NASA/Steve Sabia

As Chamber A at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston begins to warm, everyone can watch the temperature rise on the Webbcam. The overlay on the Webbcam displays the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit, degrees Celsius, and the Kelvin scale. The chamber temperature displayed is the average helium shroud temperature, and it is approximated based on chamber test parameters. Photo Credit: Steve Sabia / NASA

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.”

On Sept. 27, engineers at JSC began warming Chamber A, signaling the beginning of the end of cryogenic testing for JWST. Once the telescope is at room temperature, sometime in October, the chamber’s massive door will be unsealed.

The gradual rise in temperature over the next few weeks can be seen on the temperature overlay on JWST’s online webcam. The overlays show the temperature of the innermost of two thin metallic shrouds that were used to cool the telescope.

“Engineers will perform the warming gradually … to ensure the safety of the telescope, its science instruments, and the supporting equipment,” Randy Kimble, an integration and test project scientist for the Webb Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a news release. “Once the chamber and its contents are warmed to near room temperature, engineers will begin to pump gaseous nitrogen into [the chamber] until it is once again at one atmosphere of pressure (at sea level) and no longer a vacuum.”

Engineers are using heaters to gradually warm the inside of the chamber. They will also warm the two shrouds enveloping the telescope and gradually warm the helium gas flowing through the innermost shroud.

The JWST was tested in the airless cold of Chamber A because, in the vacuum of space, the telescope must be kept extremely cold in order to detect faint infrared light from objects that are very far away. The cryogenic testing ensures that all of the telescope’s components and science instruments function properly in a space-like environment.

The next destination for the JWST is Northrop Grumman in Redondo Beach, California, where it will be integrated with the spacecraft bus and sunshield to form the completed observatory. Once there, it will undergo what is called “observatory-level testing” – JWST’s last exposure to a simulated launch environment before flight and deployment testing on the whole observatory.

Video courtesy of Northrop Grumman 

 

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Jim Sharkey is a lab assistant, writer and general science enthusiast who grew up in Enid, Oklahoma, the hometown of Skylab and Shuttle astronaut Owen K. Garriott. As a young Star Trek fan he participated in the letter-writing campaign which resulted in the space shuttle prototype being named Enterprise. While his academic studies have ranged from psychology and archaeology to biology, he has never lost his passion for space exploration. Jim began blogging about science, science fiction and futurism in 2004. Jim resides in the San Francisco Bay area and has attended NASA Socials for the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover landing and the NASA LADEE lunar orbiter launch.

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