NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Faces More Trouble as Screws Come Loose

Sunday, 06 May 2018 - 10:43AM
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Sunday, 06 May 2018 - 10:43AM
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Faces More Trouble as Screws Come Loose
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NASA/Desiree Stover
The James Webb Space Telescope is an ambitious project, set to be much more powerful than Hubble once it's actually in space.

Unfortunately, "getting it into space" has proven troublesome, with the telescope previously facing delays as various stages of construction didn't go as planned, and the telescope has required much more work than anticipated. This bad luck has continued, as the telescope spacecraft failed to adequately hold itself together during a recent test. 

An examination of James Webb while it sat in a Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California revealed that a round of shock and acoustic testing - both simulating the shock of the spacecraft separating its payload adapter after launch, and a simulation of the intense sounds and resulting vibrations during launch - caused a number of screws and washers to come loose on the telescope.

It seemed to be the acoustic testing that did it, suggesting that the telescope might have become extremely wobbly in a real launch, if it didn't just fall apart altogether.



The specific spacecraft element of the James Webb telescope includes a sunshield and the spacecraft bus, which combine with the telescope element to form the full James Webb observatory that will float out in space. So while this testing didn't focus on the optical components, it's still very important to ensuring James Webb has some control of its movement (and keeping the sun out of its view) while in space. 

When James Webb eventually launches on an Ariane 5 rocket sometime in 2020 (originally 2019), it will need to fold up to fit inside the rocket's nose cone, which make those fasteners that came loose especially crucial for the launch. According to Greg Robinson, the program director for the telescope, who said the following in a press release from NASA:

Opening quote
"NASA is reviewing options for repair and the next steps in spacecraft element launch environment testing. The team is reviewing the test data and hardware configuration and is actively working towards corrective action in the near future. We expect to get back to the environmental test flow shortly and continue to move safely and methodically toward mission success."
Closing quote


But James Webb will be something to see when it does finally hit space. It will have a much farther orbit than Hubble ever reaches, eventually going to a distant orbit around the sun. And with a 21 feet (6.5 meters) long mirror and an infrared view, it'll be able to study just about every inch of the observable universe to look for new details we can study.

It just has to get there first. But failing a routine test like this isn't bad - it's precisely why NASA runs these tests in the first place. It just means now it won't/shouldn't happen during the real launch.
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