A non-partisan government office has issued a report warning of additional delays for the James Webb Space Telescope, which could pit the mission against its funding cap.
The U.S. Government Acountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan group that investigates federal spending and performance, has issued a report on the James Webb Space Telescope that has astronomers worried. “It's likely the launch date will be delayed again,” the report concludes — an ominous statement, given that any further delays could risk project cancellation.
Last year NASA announced a delay in the telescope’s launch to sometime between March and June 2019. The 5- to 8-month delay came from problems integrating spacecraft components, especially its complex, five-layered sunshield, which must unfold perfectly when the telescope is deployed. Right after requesting the change in launch readiness date, the mission learned of further delays from its contractor, Northrop Grumman, due to “lessons learned from conducting deployment exercises of the spacecraft element and sunshield.”
The mission now has 1.5 months of schedule reserve remaining, the GAO finds. Delays during integration and testing are common, “the phase in development where problems are most likely to be found and schedules tend to slip.” The project has a total of five phases of integration and testing, and has made significant progress on phases three and four, with the fifth phase beginning in July.
Webb, often called the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, would see the universe at infrared wavelengths, investigating everything from exoplanet atmospheres to the first galaxies. But the revolutionary telescope has had a troubled funding history. An original budget of $1 billion ballooned until in 2011 Congress capped its funding at $8 billion for development, with another $800 million set aside for operations over a five-year window following the telescope’s launch. Funding reserves and 13 months of scheduling reserves were built into the 2011 plan, but now it seems the mission is bumping up against its constraints.
NASA has issued a statement that acknowledges all of the work that has already been done on this immense undertaking, adding, “NASA looks forward to the mission's final integration and test phase now that the two major observatory elements (science payload and spacecraft with sunshield) are together under one roof for the first time.” The mission has its own review board and will be issuing a report in mid-April.