NASA confirms work stoppage on James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope is seen during a sunshield deployment test in 2019 at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Redondo Beach, California. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA and Northrop Grumman are “suspending integration and testing operations” on the James Webb Space Telescope in response to the coronavirus pandemic, a decision that officials said is likely to delay the mission’s scheduled launch date in March 2021.

The multibillion-dollar observatory is undergoing testing at a Northrop Grumman plant in Redondo Beach, California, near Los Angeles. California Gov. Gavin Newsom last week issued a stay-at-home order for the state’s residents, but exemptions to the policy include workers in critical manufacturing industries, such as production of aerospace parts.

That exemption has led many California aerospace companies to continue working.

NASA officials confirmed Friday the suspension of integration and testing work on JWST, while adding that decisions could be adjusted as the situation continues to unfold.

Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science mission directorate, said Friday that some team members needed to oversee and participate in testing of the James Webb Space Telescope are unable to be in California. There are restrictions and risk with travel, Zurbuchen said, and NASA also wants to ensure employees that were to travel to California to support testing on the observatory are with their families.

“There’s tremendous risk with travel across the country and internationally, and limitations that come down from the government,” he said in a town hall meeting Friday with the NASA science community. “We, of course, want to follow that.”

He said the JWST mission “will be impacted, even though it’s one of our top priorities.”

“NASA and international personnel required onsite for upcoming tests and deployments cannot be present as scheduled,” Zurbuchen said. “That will lead to changes in our schedule.”

The Webb telescope, named for former NASA Administrator James Webb, is currently scheduled for launch March 30, 2021. That launch date was already in doubt before the effects of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic altered test plans in California.

A Government Accountability Office report in January said new technical challenges threatened to delay the launch from March 30, 2021, which is already more than six years later than the mission’s original official schedule established in 2009.

With little margin for error, decision to suspend testing on JWST is expected to delay the launch.

“It’s anticipated that by early April the Webb project will be experiencing a day-for-day scheduling impact to its critical path,” Zurbuchen said Friday.

Teams working in Northrop Grumman’s spacecraft factory in Southern California connected the spacecraft and science modules of JWST last August, forming the complete observatory for the first time.

With Webb fully assembled, engineers at Northrop Grumman — NASA’s prime contractor for the observatory — planned to put the craft through a series of deployment, electrical, vibration, and acoustic tests to ensure it will work as designed after launch aboard a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana.

Before the start of the final environmental test campaign, which was expected this spring before the coronavirus pandemic hit, technicians replaced traveling wave tube amplifiers and a command and telemetry processor on the spacecraft. The hardware experienced problems during earlier testing.

The Webb telescope is the largest space-based observatory ever developed, with a primary mirror stretching 21.3 feet (6.5 meters) wide, comprised of 18 hexagonal segments made of beryllium and coated in gold. The mirror and JWST’s thermal sunshield will fold up origami-style to fit inside the nose shroud of its Ariane 5 launcher, a major contribution to the mission by the European Space Agency.

Scientists say the James Webb Space Telescope’s four infrared science instruments — which come from U.S., European and Canadian institutions — will see the very first stars and galaxies in the universe, observing light emitted some 13.5 billion years ago. With imaging power 100 times that of the Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will also peer into star-forming nebulas and collect data on the physical and chemical properties of planets around other stars.

Meanwhile, teams at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida are readying NASA’s Perseverance rover for launch in July. That work is continuing, Zurbuchen said.

“Teams are doing heroes’ work to keep us on track for a July launch,” he said.

Because the Perseverance rover — part of NASA’s Mars 2020 mission — is closer to launch, there’s a smaller team needed for hands-on work on the Mars-bound spacecraft at the Kennedy Space Center than required on JWST, Zurbuchen said.

NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in February to begin final preparations for launch in July. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

“Both missions are priorities, but are very different as far as their situations and decisions that need to be made,” he said.

NASA could use the agency’s own airplane fleet based at the Armstrong Flight Research Center and Wallops Flight Facility to shuttle employees to Kennedy from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where the Perseverance rover was built and the Mars 2020 team is headquartered.

“It’s something we refer to amongst ourselves as ‘Perseverance Airlines,’” Zurbuchen said.

NASA said it is also assessing work at JPL after the stay-at-home order from California’s governor.

“We are going to take care of our people. That’s our first priority,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Technology allows us to do a lot of what we need to do remotely, but, where hands-on work is required, it is difficult or impossible to comply with CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines while processing spaceflight hardware, and where we can’t safely do that we’re going to have to suspend work and focus on the mission critical activities.”

Zurbuchen echoed Bridenstine’s statement.

“Every time we have a meeting with the JPL center director and the contractors, I reassure to them if there’s a moment in time where they feel it’s no longer safe … we will stop,” Zurbuchen said.

NASA has also suspended production and testing on the Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft at facilities in Louisiana and Mississippi due to high numbers of COVID-19 cases in those regions.

Operations aboard the International Space Station continue, with critical personnel at NASA’s Mission Control Center in Houston monitoring the station and its crew 24 hours a day.

Two Russian cosmonauts and a NASA astronaut are preparing for launch April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan to replace the station’s current three-person crew.

NASA said work on the Commercial Crew Program, which aims to fly astronauts to the space station on SpaceX and Boeing crew capsules, is also continuing. The agency said the Commercial Crew Program is a “critical element to maintaining safe operations on the International Space Station and a sustained U.S. presence on the orbiting laboratory.

Astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken are training to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on the first piloted test flight of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft as soon as mid-to-late May. The two-man crew will dock with the space station for a stay that could last weeks or months. NASA has not announced the planned mission duration.

Resupply missions to the space station will go on as scheduled, NASA said.

NASA’s fleet of robotic spacecraft also continue operating, including the Hubble Space Telescope and the agency’s network of tracking and data relay satellites, the agency said in a statement.

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