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James Webb Space Telescope launch date slips again

In line with reports last month, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have confirmed that the launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope will not take place on October 31 as previously scheduled.

According to comments made this week by Beatriz Romero, the telescope’s director for launch services, and reported by Ars Technica, three particular issues have emerged that mean the telescope’s launch date will slip yet again.

First, organizing the shipment of the telescope from Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, to the launch site in French Guiana is taking longer than expected. The journey from Texas to French Guiana is about 3,200 miles, and the satellite will travel by sea. But it still hasn’t been packed into a shipping container, something that isn’t likely to happen until August at the earliest.

Second, Arianespace’s workhorse Ariane 5 rocket, which will carry the James Webb Space Telescope into space, has an issue with its fairing — the section at the top of the rocket that houses payloads. Engineers have diagnosed and fixed the problem, but two Ariane 5 launches that will test the fix need to take place prior to the telescope’s launch.

Third, like so many facilities, the spaceport in French Guiana has had its operations slowed by the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s of course hard to forecast how the infection rate may affect the situation in the coming months.

So, when will the most powerful space telescope ever built finally get to launch? It seems the delay this time around won’t be too long, with the team hoping to see it finally leave Earth in November or December. The team expects to announce a new launch date toward the end of summer or in early fall.

When it eventually reaches its targeted orbit a few months from now, the James Webb Space Telescope will take on a number of tasks, including studying potentially habitable worlds, searching for light from the first galaxies that formed in the early universe, and gathering data to help us better understand the origins of the universe and our place in it.

The telescope is notable for its gorgeous 6.5-meter-diameter golden mirror, comprising 18 hexagonal segments, that will enable it to peer into deep space. Equally impressive is the mirror’s sunshield, which is about the size of a tennis court. Each component is way too big to fit inside a rocket’s fairing, so both will be folded up for the trip to space and automatically unfold after deployment.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the result of an international collaboration between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency. It was originally slated for launch in 2007, but various issues along the way have caused multiple delays.

Despite this most recent hiccup, the team appears confident that the telescope will reach space this year.

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Trevor Mogg
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