How NASA could (hypothetically) rescue James Webb Space Telescope, should something go wrong

The news that no one wants to hear is a failure in one of the James Webb Space Telescope‘s deployment processes. While there isn’t a rescue plan, you bet NASA has thought about one.

Webb’s unique orbit will take it far beyond where any current crewed-rated vehicle can go. However, that doesn’t mean NASA hasn’t thought about what they could do if a rescue were deemed necessary.

In an interview with the New York Times, NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy stated a robotic mission had been discussed as a possible rescue attempt.

Have we talked about it? Oh yes we have talked about it. I think we could actually put something together that would allow us to send a refueler or a servicer out there. It might take a few years to pull all that together.

NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy via the New York Times

A rescue mission on this scale would be a first for the agency. However, it’s not that far-fetched. NASA used its Space Shuttle to recover failed satellites in orbit before, and Northrop Grumman (which also built Webb) developed the Mission Extension Vehicle. The MEV latches onto a spacecraft and uses its thrusters to extend the satellite’s life. So far, it’s been used successfully twice.

So far, Webb has performed flawlessly, but the teams are getting into the more stressful deployments like the heatshield and mirrors soon. While we never want to see this emergency plan be needed, it’s nice to know NASA has thought about it.

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