NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is expected to expand the bounds of human knowledge, allowing us to investigate the most distant, and therefore oldest, objects in the universe. So far, all it’s done is cost a lot of money and get delayed. Well, prepare for more of the same. NASA has confirmed that the telescope will not hit its planned October 31st launch. However, the delay might only be a few weeks this time.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been in development for more than 20 years, but it took a few years for the plan to take shape. NASA made changes to the design in the early 2000s, which pushed the expected 2007 launch date back to 2009, and then 2010, and then 2011. You can probably see where this is going. It’s 2021 and NASA still isn’t sure exactly when this telescope will launch.
For the last few months, NASA has held firm to its Halloween launch date. The hardware has been undergoing final assembly, and the agency has publicized every important milestone test. For example, NASA tested the mirror deployment system recently. The massive segmented mirror is now folded up for launch inside the European Ariane 5 rocket.
Multiple considerations led NASA to announce the latest delay. NASA is still completing final testing, and then it will pack the JWST up for its journey by ship to the ESA’s French Guiana spaceport. This will happen later in the summer, but NASA doesn’t want to say when. There is apparently some concern that the $10 billion telescope would be a tempting target for pirates. Yes, really.
The Ariane 5 rocket has been a reliable vehicle, but it too is part of the delay. The ESA has had the Ariane grounded since last year due to an issue with the payload fairing. However, the ESA says a redesign is complete, and the rocket will re-enter service soon. There are two Ariane 5 launches scheduled before Webb, so we’ll know everything is working before the irreplaceable telescope is loaded.
The final complication is the spaceport itself. Operations there have been limited by COVID-19, and vaccines are still not widely available in French Guiana. If the pandemic worsens there as we move into autumn and winter, the timeline could slip further. In the best-case scenario, it will take 55 days to prepare the JWST for launch after it reaches the spaceport. That means the October launch isn’t happening.
NASA won’t speculate on a firm launch date right now, but it will be at least a few weeks late. That means November or December 2021. I don’t think any of us will be shocked if the launch gets pushed to 2022.
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