NASA’s Extremely Delayed Webb Telescope Takes Another Blow, Literally This Time

NASA’s Extremely Delayed Webb Telescope Takes Another Blow, Literally This Time
The Webb telescope in the cleanroom at the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana, October 15, 2021. (Photo: NASA/Chris Gunn)

A processing anomaly has caused an unexpected vibration to course through the entire Webb telescope just weeks before launch. An investigation is now underway to determine if the incident somehow damaged the observatory.

Honestly, nothing surprises me anymore about the Webb Space Telescope, but this latest incident is total cringe. After decades of planning, years of delays, and painstaking work to make sure this $US10 (A$14) billion observatory will work as intended, there’s been some kind of mishap. It may turn out to be nothing, but this last-minute snafu certainly seems on-brand for the beleaguered project.

Webb was supposed to launch on December 18, but that’s not going to happen. The space telescope is currently at a satellite preparation facility in Kourou, French Guiana, where Arianespace is preparing the instrument for launch aboard its Ariane 5 rocket. Ariane technicians were getting ready to mount the telescope to the launch vehicle adaptor when a “sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band — which secures Webb to the launch vehicle adaptor — caused a vibration throughout the observatory,” according to NASA.

A vibration throughout the observatory.

Oof. Like, not a vibration tied to a single component, or a vibration limited to a certain section. No — a vibration throughout the observatory. Sounds like they rang this thing like a bell, though to be fair we don’t yet know the full severity of the shaking.

We also don’t know the timing of the incident, but it likely happened very recently. An anomaly review board led by NASA has prompted testing to make sure the incident didn’t damage any of Webb’s components. NASA says it will provide an update by the end of this week.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA, was asked about the incident at a press conference held yesterday to discuss the upcoming DART asteroid mission. Webb, being close to launch, is no longer equipped with sensors that were used while the spacecraft was being transported to French Guiana, he said, so without these sensors, the team is having to run calculations to estimate the amount of force endured by the telescope during the incident. Functional tests are being done on a “small number of subsystems” to “be sure that nothing happened,” Zurbuchen added.

Launch of Webb will now happen no earlier than December 22 — a minimum delay of four days. Of course, that assumes a happy result from the ongoing investigation. Once in space, Webb will use infrared to observe the atmospheres of distant exoplanets, study stars, and discover ancient galaxies that emerged shortly after the Big Bang.

Hard to believe, but Webb was originally supposed to launch in 2007. Ongoing development challenges, the covid-19 pandemic, and problems with Arianespace’s Ariane 5 rocket have resulted in a seemingly endless succession of delays. The telescope was supposed to launch in 2014, 2018, 2019, and then 2020, and the current year has already seen several delays (it was supposed to go up in March, October, and November). Adding insult to injury, the Webb telescope has been heavily criticised for bearing the name of a NASA administrator who was involved in the widespread persecution of LGBTQ government employees during the “lavender scare” of the mid-20th century.