James Webb Space Telescope: Delays, Breakages, Pandemics, Errors, Troubled Carrier Rockets And Now…

A handful of months separate the James Webb Space Telescope from the launch pad. The James Webb will be the largest and most powerful optical telescope ever launched into space. Following in the footsteps of its predecessor, Hubble, it will become the next great space science observatory, designed to answer unanswered questions about the Universe and promising to make revolutionary discoveries in all fields of astronomy. Apparently, however, the revolutionary tool seems destined to be targeted by bad luck even in view of the finish line. Yes, because in these last and very long years of waiting all sorts of things have happened, including breakages, pandemics, and battles with U.S. Congress for the very high costs. And recently problems with the carrier rocket, perhaps resolved, and … although it seems incredible, the possibility of a pirate assault! Can’t believe it? Follows me! As has long been known, the telescope is to be launched using an Ariane 5, a French rocket that has historically proven to be very reliable. However, in the middle of last May, the company that manufactures the Ariane 5, Arianespace, said that during the February and August 2020 launches, the caps of the launcher did not separate nominally, causing vibrations above the allowed limits during fairing separation. The fairing is the nose cone that protects the payloads inside the rocket from the extreme heat and pressure experienced during a launch. Fairings are typically built in two halves, which split once the rocket has reached sufficient altitude that the extra protection is no longer needed. They then fall away from the rocket. Arianespace didn’t provide further details about what exactly the problem was with the fairing separation, although the launches involved were still successful and the payloads were not damaged. But given the enormous cost and the delicate structure of the telescope, any potential problem has been taken very seriously, so it was decided to conduct extensive analysis before proceeding with any more launches. Arianespace, in fact, refused to provide a timetable for the next launches of Ariane 5, indicating however that two flights were planned before the launch of the James Webb telescope. At that point it really looked like the launch scheduled for Oct. 31 would have to be delayed yet again. The only consolation was that, unlike missions such as those to Mars, in this case the launch could be rescheduled for any date. A mission to Mars can instead start only at intervals of two years … and each postponement means therefore having to wait a lot of time. In this case, instead, it was assumed a postponement of only a few months, the time needed to solve the problem. But this umpteenth setback brought back to light, both in the circles of NASA and in the American Congress, financier of the company, not a few fears for a project that has been dragging on for more than twenty years and that the taxpayers had so far cost 10 billion dollars… But, financial overruns and schedule delays are not unusual for Nasa projects. Since the agency opened in 1958, several of its most high-profile missions-the Hubble Space Telescope, the Mars Curiosity rover-have launched into space well beyond their budget and timeline goals. This is, in part, because of the inherent nature of space exploration: When you’re trying to do something no one else has done before, you don’t always know how much work it will take. Nasa has also canceled some programs because of cost and time overruns, but these have been smaller projects costing several hundred million dollars, a pittance compared to Webb’s cost. It’s the biggest astronomy missions – the most complex, technically challenging efforts – that are at the greatest risk of missing targets and deadlines, and the most difficult to say no to, especially when so much has already been invested. Once you’ve spent $9 billion, the thinking would be: What’s another billion?. Nasa employes call this cognitive dissonance the “Hubble psychology.” The Hubble Space Telescope was not an immediate success when it reached space in 1990. The telescope took much longer to develop than promised, exceeded its budget, and launched with a defect in its primary mirror that took several missions to repair and maintain. But today, Hubble is considered a national treasure, and its chaotic beginnings have largely been forgotten. “As long as you bring back pretty pictures and great results, all your cost overages and schedule delays will be forgiven,” says those of NASA… All sins will be forgiven if you bring back the “pretty pictures.” Fortunately, the discouragement of the scientific community, but also that of hundreds of millions of simple fans, lasted only a few weeks, and at the end of June came the unexpected good news. Arianespace has in fact cleared the Ariane 5 to return to flight with the launch of a pair of satellites on July 27. All fairing problems have been solved, as well as the excessive vibrations at liftoff. So, NASA, ESA, and Arianespace have therefore given their approval to the launch, although the date will probably be moved by a couple of weeks, from October 31 to mid-November. “Hey, guys, just a moment before we continue… BE sure to join the Insane Curiosity Channel… Click on the bell, you will help us to make products of ever-higher quality!” Once complete, the telescope will be packed down to its launch state – with mirror and sunshield folded and stowed. Just smaller than a bus, the final telescope will be too large to travel by plane, so Nasa will ship it to the launch site. JWST will sit inside specially designed containers and a wide-load trailer tractor will transport it to Long Beach, California, from where it will travel by boat to Kourou, French Guiana, via the western coast of Mexico and through the Panama Canal. During transit, it must be kept clean and safe from severe bumps and shocks, and weather and unpredictable sea conditions are what we will be paying close attention to. Once at the launch site, Northrop Grumman will begin prelaunch testing and fueling before liftoff aboard Ariane 5 rocket. When? Probably in August, but the exact date was not communicated, and apparently will be kept secret. Do you want to know why? All right, pirates… yes, pirates! Its departure date will be kept secret to protect against pirates who might want to capture the precious cargo and hold it for ransom!!! “Why would you announce that you’re going to be shipping on a certain day something that is worth over $10 billion,” – explained a NASA official – “that you could easily put in a boat” and sail away with? Ok, many more realistic circumstances could derail the mission than marauders at sea, but for a project that has been through so much – for a telescope that was initially supposed to launch in 2007, the year the first iPhone was released – pirates might as well happen too. A NASA spokesperson said Webb will sail sometime in late July or mid-August, but did not respond to questions about specific measures, such as whether the U.S. military will escort the vessel. All this secrecy is just one more precaution. But the concern is not entirely unfounded. Telescopes are strange, elaborate, expensive objects, and they attract attention. (Webb is particularly enticing; with 18 gold-plated mirrors arranged in a honeycomb shape, the instrument will be perhaps the most ornate telescope in space.), and the history of astronomy research is sprinkled with shipping mishaps and sinister plots, driven by very earthly motivations. Perhaps the most dramatic mishap in modern history is the story of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, or JCMT for short. In 1984, a steel structure for the observatory was prepared for transport from England, where it was built, to Hawaii, where it would protect the telescope. The vessel hired to transport the structure broke down at the last minute, and the job was given to a commercial captain and his small boat. The captain was supposed to sail right to Hawaii. Instead, the boat sailed to Holland, where it picked up a shipment of dangerous explosives, presumably for a side job. The boat then idled outside the Panama Canal, purportedly awaiting special clearance for its explosive cargo, before heading to Ecuador, where it unloaded the stuff. The JCMT team had no line of communication to the captain during this quite unauthorized trek. Officials could track the boat’s whereabouts only by frantically checking shipping ledgers. And all the while, JCMT’s steel exterior sat piled up on the boat’s deck. After ten long weeks, the boat eventually made it to Hawaii. By then, the penalty fees that the captain had incurred for the late arrival nearly matched the payment he was owed for the delivery itself. The captain, floating just outside territorial waters, sent a threatening message to shore: “Either you pay me in full or I’m just going to dump this steel into the sea and say goodbye.” The JCMT team managed to get a court order that instructed the captain, under laws that governed “piracy on the high seas,” to give up the boat. Then, the Coast Guard delivered the document to the rogue boat, nailed the paper to the mast of the ship – a maritime custom, apparently – and arrested the captain at gunpoint. It is suspected that the man was not paid for the rather shoddy work. Most incidents of this nature have not been so dramatic. In 2002, telescope mirrors shipped to Chili arrived damaged and broken, an unfortunate result of the long journey from Europe. NASA also has a lengthy history of going incognito when transporting its expensive, universe-exploring machines. In most cases, the telescopes traveling in disguise arrive at their destinations without issue. Karen Knierman, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University, said that in 2003 she spotted a truck on the highway that turned out to be carrying the Spitzer space telescope to Florida, the only indication of the hidden freight being a small NASA logo on the vehicle. But in 2012, a trailer carrying a NASA telescope disappeared on its way from Minnesota to Texas. When NASA officials panicked, an employee from the trucking company set off in search of the missing cargo and found the driver asleep in the truck, with the telescope-toting trailer nowhere in sight. It was eventually discovered abandoned at a car wash in Dallas, and the driver claimed that it had been stolen. There’s no particular reason to think something untoward will happen to the James Webb telescope. And the voyage to South America isn’t even the most dangerous part of the mission. Nor is the rocket launch, which one scientist described to me as “quite literally putting all our eggs in one basket, and then attaching this basket to about 2,000 tons of high explosives.” For scientists and engineers, the most stressful event will come as Webb travels to its orbit, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth, and begins to deploy itself in a complicated, automated sequence of hundreds of tiny maneuvers. Half an hour after launch and after separation from the launch vehicle, it will deploy a solar array, which will provide power, and thrusters will fire to point the solar panels towards the Sun. For 30 days, the telescope will travel to what’s known as the second Lagrange point. Once it’s in space, James Webb’s lifetime should be limited only by the amount of hydrazine rocket fuel on board, required to keep the spacecraft in its quasi-stable orbit and to enable it to point at its targets. With enough fuel for a 5-year mission, some estimate that excellent fuel management could extend it to a 10-year mission, where the option to refuel hasn’t been ruled out yet. The main problem with the James Webb Space Telescope is that if something doesn’t work, being so far away from Earth we can’t just send a team of astronauts to fix it, as we’ve done with Hubble in the past. The big telescope will then be at the mercy of whatever misfortune may yet befall it. Whatever, with extreme confidence we can now state that 2021 will be the year that the James Webb Space Telescope finally launches. What comes after that will depend on what’s out there in the Universe.