WASHINGTON — Underscoring NASA’s desire to keep the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) on track for its long-awaited launch, the agency’s heliophysics division is preparing to ship its Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission from the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., to the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington for thermal vacuum chamber tests.

MMS is vacating Goddard so that JWST’s core science module, the heart of a telescope now years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, can undergo thermal vacuum tests at Goddard, where it is being assembled.

“All [four] MMS observatories are at Goddard now, but the current plan is to transport Observatory 2 to the Naval Research Lab next week,” NASA spokeswoman Jennifer Rumberg wrote in a Sept. 19 email. “Our plan is to put the Observatory 2 into the thermal vacuum chamber on Oct. 15.”

MMS, which NASA estimates will cost it some $850 million in 2010 dollars, is a heliophysics mission being built at Goddard as the latest in the division’s Solar Terrestrial Probes line. MMS comprises four formation-flying spacecraft that will be launched to a highly elliptical Earth orbit by a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 on a two-year mission to study how the magnetic fields of the Earth and sun interact. Closer study of this boundary layer could improve understanding of potentially dangerous solar radiation from so-called coronal mass ejections that can damage electrical equipment in space or even on Earth.

MMS is now scheduled to launch no later than March 2016, Jeffrey Newmark, a solar physicist based at NASA headquarters, said Sept. 16. Newmark, also the program scientist the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph mission that launched June 27, spoke here at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s heliophysics subcommittee.

Doing MMS thermal vacuum tests at the Navy facility is expected to keep the mission on track for launch. 

“Waiting in line could significantly delay the MMS launch since JWST and its ground support equipment occupies the chamber for an extended period of time for multiple tests,” Rumberg wrote.

One member of the MMS science team said the mission was essentially bounced from the Goddard chamber because the more expensive JWST showed up late.

“JWST was originally scheduled to be in the Goddard thermal vac facility long before the date when MMS was scheduled to be there,” said Roy Torbert, a physics professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H., and team lead for one of MMS’s instrument suites. JWST, Torbert said, “slipped and slipped and eventually slipped into the date range that was scheduled for MMS, which has remained on schedule.”

Costs for JWST have ballooned to the point where NASA’s financial overseers in Congress — including Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who is one of Goddard’s most powerful and reliable allies — have warned NASA that overruns will no longer be tolerated in the program. With that directive, NASA is pulling out all stops to launch JWST by October 2018. 

“It’s hard to stop that juggernaut,” Newmark said of JWST at the NASA Advisory Council meeting Sept. 16.

JWST’s science instrument module has been in cryogenic testing at Goddard since August, albeit without its full complement of four instruments. The Near-Infrared Spectrograph, built by Astrium GmbH of Ottobrun, Germany, arrived at Goddard on Sept. 20, “a few days earlier than some of us were expecting,” NASA spokesman Ed Campion wrote in an email. 

Once the tardy instrument has been installed, JWST’s science core will be returned to the Goddard thermal vacuum chamber where it will remain through the summer of 2015, according to NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington. “Allowing the Webb program sole access to the chamber during its testing period minimizes the test period by avoiding moving complex equipment in and out [of the thermal vacuum chamber] and re-qualifying it each time,” Harrington wrote in a Sept. 20 interview. 

Van Allen Probes Savings Erased

As the heliophysics division maneuvers MMS around JWST, solar scientists have had to watch savings achieved in the Van Allen Probes program, formerly known as Radiation Storm Belt Probes mission, get gobbled up by across-the-board budget cuts known as sequestration. 

The twin Van Allen Probes launched in August 2012 on a two-year mission to study the Earth’s radiation belts and met with some scientific success not long after launch. The probes discovered a new radiation belt, raising the tally of those named for their discoverer, James Van Allen, to three.

The mission also came in $22 million under budget, but that meant little for heliophysics in the end, Newmark told the NASA Advisory Council Sept. 16. Normally, when a mission comes in under budget, the division that managed it might get a chance to put the savings toward some other program. 

“You could accelerate the next Explorer [small mission competition], for example,” Newmark said. “But in this case, it came back right in time to be nailed by sequestration. So it actually disappeared. Instead of taking a $40 million hit right out, we only had to take like an $18 million hit.”

Sequestration left heliophysics with roughly $606 million for 2013 under a final operating plan settled on by Congress and NASA in August. In 2012, Heliophysics had about $645 million. The White House was seeking nearly $654 million for 2014. “Sequestration is not kind to anybody,” Newmark said.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...