NASA Pauses Work on James Webb Space Telescope Due to COVID-19 Pandemic


The chronically delayed James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is looking at another setback, but this time it’s completely out of NASA’s control. The agency has announced it will pause work on the telescope immediately due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The launch is still currently on the books for approximately one year from now, but any this delay will likely push the launch back yet again. This also calls into question the timeline for other projects like the Perseverance Mars rover. 

The first hints of a new delay came during a Friday digital town hall meeting with the Science Mission Directorate. The stated goal of that event was to address questions about the upcoming NASA budget, which goes into effect this coming October. However, questions about coronavirus understandably dominated the talk. 

NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen explained during the town hall that all of NASA’s efforts were being impacted, some more than others. Planning and development work can still happen remotely, but physically building and testing spacecraft can’t. At the time, Zurbuchen said the agency had already reduced staff on the James Webb Space Telescope. Several hours after that event, NASA announced it was pausing all work on the JWST. 

This telescope has been in some stage of development since the mid-90s. NASA initially hoped to build the Hubble successor for about $1.6 billion, but the cost has since ballooned to almost $10 billion. Another delay will most likely add to the cost and could further delay the launch date. Even without the pandemic, a Government Accountability Office report from January estimated just a 12 percent chance that the James Webb Space Telescope would make its current launch window. 

A render of Webb’s final configuration.

There is also concern coronavirus could impact the next Mars rover. The recently named Perseverance rover is still awaiting final assembly and testing. NASA hasn’t made any specific announcements about this project, but Zurbuchen noted that “teams are doing frankly heroes’ work to keep us on track.” 

If Perseverance does fall behind schedule, the delay could be substantial. NASA is targeting this summer for launch because that’s when Earth and Mars will pass near each other. Even a small delay could force NASA to delay the launch until 2022 when the planets are again in alignment. That’s what the ESA had to do recently with the ExoMars mission

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