Hubble telescope successor on target

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The James Webb Space Telescope, intended to peer deep into the cosmos from beyond the moon, is progressing well in development and is on track for a planned June 2013 launch, officials said on Thursday.

A full-scale model of the Webb Telescope is on display at the National Mall in Washington, May 10, 2007. REUTERS/Nick Crettier/Northrop Grumman/Handout

Edward Weiler, head of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said after cost overruns a couple of years ago, the project has met every technical, cost and schedule milestone for the past 20 months. The launch date already has slipped from 2011.

The Webb telescope is envisioned as the first of a new generation of space observatories, set to orbit nearly a million miles from Earth to allow scientists to look further into the universe than ever before in five decades of space exploration.

Scientists hope the new telescope can collect data on the early universe after the Big Bang, and on planets outside our solar system, including evidence of whether life might exist on them.

Officials from NASA and Northrop Grumman Corp., the defense contractor building the telescope, described its progress during an outdoor news conference on the National Mall.

“We’re making excellent progress in meeting all of our plans and commitments for a mid-2013 launch,” said Martin Mohan, Northrop Grumman’s program manager, adding that NASA has endorsed all 10 new technologies developed for the telescope.

Standing in the shadow of a full-scale model of the telescope measuring 80 feet long, 40 feet (12 meters) wide and 40 feet tall, Mohan said, “There’s engineering to do, but invention is done, more than six years ahead of launch.”

Weiler said the telescope will cost $4.5 billion including development, deployment and operations through 10 years after launch. He said Hubble has cost between $7 billion and $8 billion, adding that the Webb project is far ahead of where Hubble was at a similar time in development in the 1980s.

The Webb telescope will be more powerful and capable than the aging Hubble, which has greatly expanded the understanding of the cosmos since its launch in 1990. The Webb is due to be placed in a more distant orbit beyond the moon.

The Webb telescope will be given a primary mirror whose surface is about six times the size of the one on Hubble. It will also have infrared-sensing cameras and spectrographs.

The future of Hubble is in doubt because the space shuttle program is winding down in the coming years and the telescope needs manned maintenance missions to continue operations.

The Webb will not be as serviceable by astronauts as the Hubble but is being designed so that a future spacecraft can dock with it to try to correct simple problems, Weiler said.