NASA suspends work on the James Webb Space Telescope

Georgina Torbet

NASA is suspending work on its troubled James Webb Space Telescope due to the coronavirus pandemic. “The James Webb Space Telescope team, also in California, is suspending integration and testing operations,” NASA announced in a statement. “Decisions could be adjusted as the situation continues to unfold over the weekend and into next week. The decision was made to ensure the safety of the workforce. The observatory remains safe in its cleanroom environment.”

The James Webb telescope has been through more than its share of issues, even before the coronavirus outbreak. It has been delayed multiple times, due to the complexity of the project, and a report released in January of this year estimated a just 12% chance that the telescope would be able to meet its launch date of November 2020. With the project now suspended, it seems highly unlikely that the telescope will be launched this year.

Artist’s conception of the James Webb Space Telescope NASA

The suspension is necessary to protect NASA staff, the agency said. “We are going to take care of our people. That’s our first priority,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in the statement. “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 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.”

NASA has said it still plans to go ahead with its mission with SpaceX in May. The aim is to launch astronauts on a journey to the International Space Station (ISS) in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which would mark the first launching of American astronauts from American soil since the closing of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. Despite the effects of the coronavirus on many aspects of the space industry, SpaceX seems to be making it through the crisis relatively unscathed, with the company not announcing any delays or issues caused by the pandemic.

NASA, on the other hand, has been hit hard by coronavirus. It has experienced outbreaks of the disease at and nearby to a number of its research centers, which has lead to it requiring employees to work from home. It has also suspended work on its Space Launch System and Orion projects, so it seems likely that the planned mission to the moon, aimed for a 2024 launch, may well be delayed. The agency says it will continue to prepare for other missions such as the launch of the Mars 2020 mission, the development of the X-59 plane, and planned activities for the International Space Station.