NASA hosted a teleconference Tuesday during which it announced that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope will be rescheduled to May 2020. The delay in NASA’s successor to the Hubble Space Telescope was partially due to multiple tears in the sunshield that make up a large portion of the spacecraft’s base.
NASA divides the JWST into two main parts: The telescope itself and the highly complex sunshield that will be placed directly under the telescope. The latter was constructed by layering five tennis-court sized sheets of heat-resistant polyimide mixed with aluminum that is coated in silicon. The point of this multi-leveled component is to deflect all incoming light rays away from the infrared-light detecting telescope, which could skew the readings it sends back to Earth. Essentially, without the sunshield, the JWST is blind.
Back in October, engineers discovered seven tears in the sunshield that NASA officials attributed to “workmanship error” during its assembly. The largest of the rips were 4 inches (10 centimeters across), stated Dennis Andrucyk, the Deputy Associate Administrator of the Space Technology Mission Directorate. One of the five layers also “snagged” during a test, which could be a sign of more underlying construction issues regarding an integral part of this much-anticipated telescope.
The total cost of the JWST has run NASA up $7.3 billion to this point. If repairs and additions to the sunshield and other parts of the telescope take the administration over its allotted $8.8 billion budget, it would have to get the mission re-approved by Congress. If that were to happen, there is a chance that the mission might be abandoned.
Thomas Zurbuchen, the associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, put it bluntly: “Simply put, we have one shot to get this right before going into space. Failure is not an option.”