NASA reveals there are over 300 ways its James Webb space telescope could fail


It’s the largest and most expensive space telescope NASA has ever built and it will peer deeper into the cosmos than its iconic predecessor Hubble.

But the $ 10 billion (£ 7.2 billion) James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is also by far the US space agency’s most complicated, meaning there will still be dozens of traps. potential even when it finally launches next month.

Over 300 to be exact. That’s according to NASA, which has estimated that there are 344 ways the six-ton ​​observatory could fail when it takes to orbit 930,000 miles from Earth.

Approximately 28 minutes after takeoff, JWST will detach from its launcher and begin “the most complex sequence of deployments ever attempted in a single space mission,” the US space agency said.

NASA has estimated that there are 344 ways its James Webb Space Telescope (pictured) could fail when it takes to orbit 930,000 miles from Earth shortly after launch on December 18.


NIRCam (Near InfraRed Camera) an infrared imager from the edge of the visible to near infrared

NIR specification (Near InfraRed Spectrograph) will also perform spectroscopy over the same wavelength range.

MIRI (Mid-InfraRed Instrument) will measure the wavelength range of mid to long infrared from 5 to 27 micrometers.

FGS / NIRISS (Fine Guidance Sensor and Near Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph), is used to stabilize the line of sight of the observatory during scientific observations.

Once in orbit, it will need to deploy from inside its launch rocket in a process similar to an upside down origami exercise.

This will take place over a period of approximately 14 years and will involve the choreographed movement of all kinds of pulleys, levers, hinges, cables and springs.

“There are an average of 344 single point of failure elements,” according to Mike Menzel, chief Webb mission systems engineer for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, who said “about 80 percent of these are associated with the deployment ‘.

He added: “When I started in this company about 40 years ago, I remember that one of the first lessons I learned was to avoid deployments in orbit.

“James Webb cannot avoid deployments. In fact, James Webb has to execute some of the most complex deployment sequences ever attempted, and these present many challenges. ‘

JWST was built by Northrop Grumman, and final assembly and testing was completed in August at the aerospace manufacturer’s plant in Redondo Beach, California.

Krystal Puga, JWST spacecraft systems engineer for Northrop Grumman, told the briefing that the telescope has 144 trigger mechanisms “all of which must work perfectly.”

The $ 10 billion (£ 7.2 billion) James Webb Space Telescope is Hubble's successor and will allow astronomers to peer deeper into the Universe than ever before

The $ 10 billion (£ 7.2 billion) James Webb Space Telescope is Hubble’s successor and will allow astronomers to peer deeper into the Universe than ever before

The mirror will have to be folded up to enter the rocket (artist's impression on the photo), before retracting into space

The mirror will have to be folded up to enter the rocket (artist’s impression on the photo), before retracting into space


Ariane 5 is the European heavy transport space launcher. It was developed and operated by Arianespace for the European Space Agency and launched from French Guyana.

It sends satellites into geostationary and low earth orbit and has enjoyed a streak of 82 consecutive successes since its first launch in 2003.

It was built by Aribus and costs up to 185 million euros (£ 159 million) per launch to send a payload into space.

It stands 171 feet high on both floors and can support a maximum payload of 23,953 lbs.

Ariane 5 is the launcher of choice to send the James Webb Space Telescope to point L2.

“The sun visor is like a parachute’s parachute; it must be perfectly folded so that it unfolds and unfolds perfectly without a hitch, without any tangling, ”she added.

Alphonso Steward, JWST Deployment Systems Manager for NASA Goddard, said, “Like an origami object, proper folding and unfolding is required to achieve a specific shape.”

Menzel said the team has reduced the number of release mechanics as much as they can.

“We’ve struck a balance between getting the control we want, with these large, flexible membranes,” without adding too many single points of failure, he said.

Menzel stressed that considerable work had been done to ensure the success of the mission.

“When we identify a point failure, we give it very special treatment,” he added.

“We have what we call a critical item control plan and we are always adding additional inspection points. And we performed additional offline testing on these devices. ‘

JWST has been plagued by delays and cost overruns, many of them with the preparation of the European Space Agency’s Ariane-5 rocket, which is due to send it into space on December 18.

After its launch, it will take about three days to reach lunar orbit, and another 27 days to reach its final orbit.

Once in position, it will see the very first stars shine in the Universe thanks to its large mirror, which is 21 feet in diameter compared to the 7.8-foot mirror on Hubble.

However, JWST will focus more on infrared wavelength than visual light.

In addition to giving astronomers the ability to see the Cosmic Dawn (the birth of the very first stars 13.5 billion years ago), it will also reveal atmospheres in distant worlds.

The Last Space Observatory is a joint NASA, ESA and Canadian Space Agency (CSA) project, described by NASA Administrator Bill Nelson as a “colossal achievement, designed to transform our vision. of the universe and provide amazing science ”.

The observatory features a series of state-of-the-art cameras, spectrographs and coronographs, as well as the largest astronomical mirror ever sent into space.


NASA and its partners plan to launch their next major space telescope later this year and it will serve as Hubble’s natural successor.

Primarily an infrared telescope, it will have a wider spectrum than Hubble and will operate farther from Earth, in a solar orbit, rather than an Earth orbit.

Research by Ohio State University claims that within five years of going live, James Webb will have found signs of alien life on a distant world.

Graduate student Caprice Phillips calculated he could eventually detect ammonia created by living creatures around gaseous dwarf planets after just a few orbits.

The James Webb Telescope has been described as a “time machine” that could help unlock the secrets of our universe.

The telescope will be used to observe the first galaxies born in the early universe more than 13.5 billion years ago.

It will also observe the sources of stars, exoplanets and even the moons and planets of our solar system.

The James Webb telescope and most of its instruments have an operating temperature of around 40 Kelvin.

That’s about minus 387 Fahrenheit (minus 233 Celsius).

Officials from the space agencies responsible for the telescope say the cost could exceed the program cap of $ 8 billion (£ 5.6 billion) set by Congress.

NASA has already poured $ 7 billion (£ 5 billion) into the telescope since it was first proposed as a replacement for the long-standing Hubble Space Telescope.

When launched in 2021, it will be the world’s largest and most powerful telescope, capable of looking back 200 million years after the Big Bang.

James Webb is designed to last five years, but NASA hopes it will work for a decade or more, although due to its distance from Earth it cannot be easily repaired.

It measures 66 feet by 46 feet and will operate at the Sun-Earth Lagrange point about 930,000 miles from Earth – nearly four times as far as the moon.

The telescope is expected to be launched on a European Ariane-5 rocket at the end of October 2021, with the first observations expected in 2022.


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