Even as NASA touts the final assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope, its program director noted in a presentation that the telescope is still facing several engineering issues that could cause further launch delays.
They presently are targeting a March 2021 launch on an Ariane 5 rocket (ten years behind schedule). Their schedule cushion (the extra time built into their schedule in case they have problems) however has shrunk from nine months to only two. Worse, there remain several lingering unsolved engineering problems.
One such problem is with an electronics unit called a command telemetry processor that malfunctioned during environmental testing. Robinson said engineers had problems duplicating the problem to determine the root cause and plan to replace the unit, along with a traveling wave tube amplifier used in the spacecraft’s communications system that also failed during testing.
NASA has also been working with launch provider Arianespace about concerns that residual pressure within the payload fairing at the time of fairing separation could “over-stress” the sunshield membranes. Tests on recent Ariane 5 launches confirmed that there was a higher residual pressure than the sunshield was designed for. Vents in the fairing are being redesigned to address this, Robinson said, and will be tested on Ariane 5 launches in early 2020.
However, those smaller problems, along with bigger issues like fastener problems with the sunshield found during environmental testing last year, have eroded the margin built into the revised schedule for the mission.
Unmentioned in the article is the fact that Arianespace is planning to retire the Ariane 5 when its Ariane 6 starts launching next year. Right now they have agreed to maintain their Ariane 5 launch facilities through March 2021 to allow Webb’s launch, but further delays could cause significant problems, including fixing the fairing issue mentioned above. At a certain point Arianespace will no longer be willing to hold onto Ariane 5 for just this one launch.
Also unmentioned in the article is the status of Webb’s budget, which has grown from a proposed $500 million cost to almost $10 billion. I suspect that if they can meet their March 2021 launch date that total will not grow much. Any further delays however will once again cause it to balloon.
(I originally listed the proposed cost of Webb above as $1 billion, but that number is wrong. See the comments below).
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