NASA's Webb telescope: Revolutionary design, runaway costs

Feb 20, 2012 By Ralph Vartabedian and W.J. Hennigan
The James Webb Space Telescope, an artist's concept. Credit: ESA.

In deep, cold space, nearly a million miles from Earth, a giant telescope later this decade will scan for the first light to streak across the universe more than 13 billion years ago.

The 7-ton spacecraft, one of the most ambitious and costly science projects in U.S. history, is under construction for NASA at Corp.'s space park complex in Redondo Beach, Calif.

The aim is to capture the oldest light, taking cosmologists to the time after the big bang when matter had cooled just enough to start forming the first blazing stars in what had been empty darkness. Astronomers have long dreamed about peering into that provenance.

"It is the actual formation of the universe," said Alan Dressler, the astronomer at Carnegie Institution for Science in Pasadena who chaired a committee that proposed the telescope more than a decade ago.

If the works as planned, it will be vastly more capable than any of the dozen currently deployed U.S. space telescopes and will be a dramatic symbol of U.S. technological might. But for all its sophistication, the project also reveals a deeply ingrained dysfunction in the agency's business practices, critics say. The Webb's cost has soared to $8.8 billion, more than four times its original estimate, which nearly led Congress to kill the program last year.

The agency has repeatedly proposed such technologically difficult projects at bargain-basement prices, a practice blamed either on errors in its culture or a political strategy. Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA's budget, said a combination of both problems affected the Webb.

"There was not adequate oversight," Wolf said. "And there were reports that the were being cooked a little bit, some by the company, some by NASA."

It could spell a new era for the space agency, in which it will have money for just one flagship science mission per decade rather than one every few years as it has in the past. The Webb's cost growth, along with an austere budget outlook for NASA, is depleting the agency's pipeline of big science missions. A much-discussed mission to return samples of Martian soil to Earth, for example, may be unaffordable, according to the House Science Committee staff.

The Webb telescope was conceived by the astronomy community in the late 1990s as a more modest project with a smaller mirror for about $500 million. Then-NASA chief Daniel Goldin challenged the science community in a major speech to double the capability of the telescope for the same price.

James Webb Space Telescope
This is an artist's rendition of the James Webb Space Telescope orbiting the second Lagrange point (L2) of the Sun-Earth system. The L2 point is approximately 1.5 million kilometers (approximately 930,000 miles) from Earth, outside the orbit of the Moon. The region about L2 is a gravitational saddle point, where spacecraft may remain at roughly constant distance from the Earth throughout the year by small station-keeping maneuvers. Credit: NASA

Dressler, who was in the audience when Goldin gave the speech, recalled: "It astonished everybody. It made no sense that you could build a telescope six times larger than Hubble ... and have it come in cheaper. We were so stunned, we didn't know what to do."

The early lowball cost figures had no official standing, but they shaped political expectations many years later.

Not surprisingly, the price began to rise, first to $1 billion and then to more than $2 billion when the aerospace industry began submitting estimates. By 2008, when the program was well underway, the cost hit $5 billion.

NASA was running into technical difficulties in manufacturing almost every aspect of the telescope, and it was forced to stretch out the schedule, said Richard Howard, NASA's head of the Webb program and the agency's deputy chief technologist. The agency kept investing in the most difficult technologies for the Webb, leaving other parts of the project out of sync. As a result, some components will be boxed up and stored for years while other pieces are completed.

The delays boosted the cost even more. By last year, the cost estimate to build the telescope hit $8 billion, not including about $940 million in contributions by international partners and about $800 million NASA will spend for five years of operation. The launch date slipped from 2014 to 2018, meaning an army of experts will have to keep working years more on the project. In the past, NASA could tap reserves in its larger budget to get through technical problems, but those funding pools have dried up, Howard said.

The skyrocketing cost infuriated many in Congress. Last year, Wolf led an effort by House Republicans to eliminate all of the Webb's funding, though it was ultimately restored by a conference committee. But to those working on the program, the message was sent.

"It didn't feel good," said Scott Willoughby, Northrop's general manager for the project. "It is costing more than it should. But we didn't make any bad choices. The money was well-spent. We are building the telescope we originally conceived."

Indeed, an independent review panel commended the telescope team last year for its technical merit. The machine has required a whole list of revolutionary developments.

The 21-foot-diameter mirror will be six times larger in area than Hubble, focused by more than 100 motors on its back. Made up of 18 hexagonal segments covered in a thin layer of gold, it is so big that it must be folded up for launch - another innovation.

To withstand the brutal temperature shifts in space and to save weight, the mirror is made of a rare element called beryllium. Only a few companies in the world can polish beryllium so finely that mere atoms can be brushed off. One of those companies is L-3 Communications SSG-Tinsley Inc. in Richmond, northeast of San Francisco. The grinding and polishing process took seven years and required the company to build eight custom machines that cost $1 million apiece.

"We had to find a way to do this right," said John Kincade, a vice president with L-3. "The mirrors have to be perfect."

As ancient light traverses the universe, it shifts to the infrared region of the spectrum, requiring the Webb to have mirrors capable of collecting very faint emissions and detecting them with special sensors that must be kept at nearly the lowest possible temperature known to exist. The satellite will rely on four instruments, supplied by a European consortium, Canada, the University of Arizona and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, Calif., with other partners.

To achieve those low temperatures, the Webb will have a sophisticated refrigeration system and a five-layer plastic shade to shield the mirror and instruments from the sun. The shade will stretch to the size of a tennis court, keeping temperatures on one side at minus-388 degrees Fahrenheit and the other hot enough to fry an egg at 185 degrees. If it all works, not only will the Webb see the first light of the universe, but it will spot new planets and even determine whether those distant bodies hold water, Howard said.

Howard is confident now that the cost will not increase further and that NASA can execute the program on the new schedule. If the cost does go higher, Wolf admits Congress is not likely to kill the program but says NASA will get hurt in many other ways.

"The real danger is not that (the Webb) will not be funded, but it will consume so many other NASA programs," he warned.

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User comments : 26

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thomowen20
2.3 / 5 (8) Feb 20, 2012
So long as the profit motive reigns supreme, we will not advance much further. Our hang ups now are cultural not technological.
Burnerjack
4.5 / 5 (4) Feb 20, 2012
insufficient oversight? How long has NASA been in the space biz? Seems like the "Lack of oversight" generated years of guaranteed income for those working on the project AND those responsible for "oversight". Seems like classic "conflict of interest" at it's finest. Utilizing technology to fleece the public will have grave repercussions for future projects. Worst reasons ever NOT to persue future projects.
Callippo
1.4 / 5 (10) Feb 20, 2012
So, instead of one billion it costs eight and it's not even launched? And it's blind already? http://www.newsci...ope.html Apparently something is rotten in the JWST project.
dtyarbrough
1.3 / 5 (13) Feb 20, 2012
When they put it into position and look for the origins of the big bang, they will just see more of the same things they see today with a few new discoveries they will misinterpret, leading to bigger and 'better' ways to spend taxpayer money. At least they put a few people to work.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.2 / 5 (40) Feb 20, 2012
Give James West to the Chinese and let them complete the project.

Clearly America isn't up to the task.
am_Unition
5 / 5 (8) Feb 20, 2012
Anyone that's submitted proposals for any type of scientific research grants to the government knows that the only way to be competitive is to underbid, both in projected cost, schedule, and sometimes even in scope.

This is especially true in a crowded market, and let me tell you from an inside perspective, the science mission satellite projects are be notably terrible.

*EVERY* single winning proposal ends up requiring additional time and funding for project completion.

*EVERYONE* in the industry expects this to happen, and when it doesn't, it speaks volumes for the contractor or organization responsible for completing the project on time and budget.

For a project as incredibly complex as the James Webb telescope, I can't imagine how much testing, inspection, and extraneous, over-regulated QA bullshit this thing will have to pass through before it flies, both in NASA and at the sub-contractor level.

It's an industry-wide plague especially bad in this case.
Deesky
5 / 5 (13) Feb 20, 2012
It will be worth every penny, whatever the final cost ends up being (peanuts really - 9 billion over 20 years). This is truly a revolutionary piece of equipment that will be undoubtedly transform our understanding of the early universe. I just wish it wasn't still six years away!
jsdarkdestruction
4.5 / 5 (15) Feb 20, 2012
we spend about 18 million dollars an hour in our war on terror. lets see so 432 a day. so 12096 million dollars will be spent this month at least. that is is over 12 billion dollars. this space telescope will be a much better return on our investment than these endless pointless wars.
SemiNerd
4.5 / 5 (8) Feb 20, 2012
we spend about 18 million dollars an hour in our war on terror. lets see so 432 a day. so 12096 million dollars will be spent this month at least. that is is over 12 billion dollars. this space telescope will be a much better return on our investment than these endless pointless wars.

I agree completely. I so wish more people thought like we do.
Raygunner
2.4 / 5 (7) Feb 21, 2012
I predict that the telescope will see almost 13.8 billion years in the past. What will it see? Galaxies - much like we have now - very dimly glowing in the far-infrared. Evidence that the universe keeps going, and going, and going...
jsdarkdestruction
3 / 5 (4) Feb 21, 2012
Give James West to the Chinese and let them complete the project.

Clearly America isn't up to the task.

Yeah, great idea! outsourcing our space programs to china as its cheaper in china will help american companies and the advancement of new innovative technologies in america.....
GuruShabu
1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 21, 2012
We are already screwed!
The only thing we need to show us we are so decadent as the Romans before their complete collapse as the most powerful culture for centuries is to elect a Horse as our Senator!
Yes, give it up to the Chinese!
GuruShabu
1 / 5 (12) Feb 21, 2012
I predict that the telescope will see almost 13.8 billion years in the past. What will it see? Galaxies - much like we have now - very dimly glowing in the far-infrared. Evidence that the universe keeps going, and going, and going...

Exactly!
We need to break this paradigm of the Big Bang.
The universe is infinite...they will keep on seeing galaxies and more galaxies as Hubble sees today.
galaxies that could not be formed in such a short time but exist. Perfect, spiral, all types.
Also about the expansion fo the universe as a cause of the Big Bang. It is not expanding. The Red Shift is caused by photos being absorbed and re-emitted losing energy (and consequently, increasing the wave length) in the process. How they loose energy? The electrons they hit during their billion-year travel bounce back and fort causing a tiny loss of energy that ultimately is translated in red-shift. There is no Big Bang and no expanding universe. Just an infinite one.
GuruShabu
1.9 / 5 (8) Feb 21, 2012
we spend about 18 million dollars an hour in our war on terror. lets see so 432 a day. so 12096 million dollars will be spent this month at least. that is is over 12 billion dollars. this space telescope will be a much better return on our investment than these endless pointless wars.

I agree completely. I so wish more people thought like we do.


Totally agree!
Vendicar_Decarian
0.3 / 5 (38) Feb 21, 2012
"We need to break this paradigm of the Big Bang.
The universe is infinite...they will keep on seeing galaxies and more galaxies as Hubble sees today." - GruruPoPo

Sorry Billy Boy, but an infinite universe is completely compatible with big bang theory.

If you don't know that then you don't understand the basic ideas behind what you are criticizing.
Kinedryl
2 / 5 (4) Feb 21, 2012
but an infinite universe is completely compatible with big bang theory
Only if Big Bang happened before infinite time. Which didn't by proponents of Big Bang theory. Anyway, here you can read the Universe diameter is ~ 93 Gyrs, everything else violates the Big Bang theory as we know it. http://en.wikiped...rse#Size
Husky
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 21, 2012
budgetblast or not, i sure hope this thing will fly, i am pretty sure we can vindicate or disprove a whole lot of theories with it that we can now only speculate aboute because we can't look over the horizone.
GuruShabu
1.3 / 5 (12) Feb 21, 2012
"We need to break this paradigm of the Big Bang.
The universe is infinite...they will keep on seeing galaxies and more galaxies as Hubble sees today." - GruruPoPo

Sorry Billy Boy, but an infinite universe is completely compatible with big bang theory.

If you don't know that then you don't understand the basic ideas behind what you are criticizing.

The Big Bang theory describes the beginning of the universe as as dimensionless point from where space and time where created.
However, there are so many flaws in the theory presently, that it looks like the Ptolemaic 51 added epicycles trying to explain the movement of the planets seen from Earth.
The Big Bang theory cannot explain the abundance of the elements (H, He, Li), in spit of the good try from Gell Mann (Inflation), the cosmic background radiation data was cooked until it cannot be edible any more. The quasars intrinsic "measured" movement does not fit into the red-shift they present or they should have super luminal...
GuruShabu
1 / 5 (11) Feb 21, 2012
...velocities.
The Big Bang assumes the universe is expanding but we can see galaxies colliding which is very unlikely in an ever expanding space between all point of the space. This pleased very much a Vatican priest Georges LemaƮtre and gave the church a new ground to say the universe was created instead had existed for ever...
I don't need to keep citing all contradiction the BB theory presents nowadays.
I was a big fan of the BB theory when I was an adolescent. However, I had to face the hard facts and rethink my positon. Fortunately, I was not anchored in grants, projects and academic groups that have created their careers around the BB theory.
It is already obvious that the entire physics has to be re-accessed beyond the constrains of the peer reviews and (very) ortodox groups leading the physics nowadays. Please, read Lee Smolin, Peter Woit, Lerner...
Open your mind and stop being irrational.
Gawad
5 / 5 (7) Feb 21, 2012
For a project as incredibly complex as the James Webb telescope, I can't imagine how much testing, inspection, and extraneous, over-regulated QA bullshit this thing will have to pass through before it flies, both in NASA and at the sub-contractor level.

You bring up some excellent points, but I'd like to highlight the one I quoted because if any of it seems "over-regulated" remember this: unlike the HST, NASA won't be able to service the James Webb. It's a one shot deal. If anything goes wrong out at L2 that they can't fix though software, whatever it is that breaks is gonna stay broke. So they'd better do *a lot* of testing!
CardacianNeverid
4.3 / 5 (6) Feb 22, 2012
The Big Bang theory describes the beginning of the universe as as dimensionless point from where space and time where created -GuruTard

The BBT only concerns itself with what happened after the bang and not the origin state.

However, there are so many flaws in the theory presently, that it looks like the Ptolemaic 51 -GuruTard

Not as many flaws as the Swiss cheese between your ears, grasshopper.

The Big Bang theory cannot explain the abundance of the elements -GuruTard

And yet it does so beautifully. Poor little Guru-poopie-pants.

the cosmic background radiation data was cooked until it cannot be edible any more -FondueForBrainsGuruTard

Perhaps you were standing too close to the microwave oven while reheating your Crank-O-Pops? Epic fail.

Vendicar_Decarian
0.1 / 5 (35) Feb 22, 2012
"but an infinite universe is completely compatible with big bang theory" - Vendicar Decarian

"Only if Big Bang happened before infinite time." - Kinedryl

No. You are making the mistake of assuming that the BB occurred at one point in space.

It occurred at every point in space. The initial volume of that space may have been finite or infinite, but in both cases has no leading edge.

The universe did not expand into space that already existed. There is no outside of the universe, and hence nothing to expand into.

Further the BB has no real beginning. Extrapolating backward, the closer you get to the beginning, the longer it will take you to get there.

When the energy densities grow high enough, time really has no meaning.
Vendicar_Decarian
0.1 / 5 (35) Feb 22, 2012
You don't comprehend the scale of the universe.

It is so large that the amount of expansion between neighboring galaxies is far to small to compensate for their gravitational attraction.

"The Big Bang assumes the universe is expanding but we can see galaxies colliding which is very unlikely in an ever expanding space between all point of the space." - Guru
Lurker2358
1 / 5 (2) Feb 25, 2012
No. You are making the mistake of assuming that the BB occurred at one point in space.

It occurred at every point in space. The initial volume of that space may have been finite or infinite, but in both cases has no leading edge.


That is absolutely NOT what the text books, encyclopedias, or videos of the leading experts say.

They all say the BB exploded out of a single point.

The universe did not expand into space that already existed.


That meets the theory, yeah. Supposedly the BB created Space and time itself.

There is no outside of the universe, and hence nothing to expand into.


You don't keep up with even your own mainstream theories very well, do you?

This is the BB theory, vendi. Learn it, so you maybe know what's wrong with it.

http://www.youtub...ure=fvst

http://www.youtub...7lPMhqSI

Notice how much Dr. Kaku mixes conjecture, theory, and fact without making any distinction. This is called CRANK.
Skepticus
1 / 5 (3) Feb 25, 2012
The reason it cost 8bil instead of 1 was that it was redesigned to work in reverse at well, i.e., to shoot high energy beams out of that lovely latinum- coated trinium mirror. See the triangular-braced force-field focusing control? Or the massive radiator stacks cum Whipple shields to get rid of the waste heat? Aliens coming from beyond L2 will be in for a nasty surprise..!
(i go and take my med now :-))
braindead
not rated yet Feb 25, 2012
"Howard is confident now that the cost will not increase further..."
Go on really?

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