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Launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope delayed until Christmas eve

NASA has announced that the launch of its next-generation telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope, has been delayed until Christmas eve due to a communication issue between the telescope and its rocket. The construction and launch of the telescope have suffered repeated delays, due in part to the extreme complexity of the telescope and its systems. Once launched, it will be the world’s most powerful space observatory and will be the successor to the aging Hubble Space Telescope.

“The James Webb Space Telescope team is working a communication issue between the observatory and the launch vehicle system,” NASA wrote in a brief statement this week. “This will delay the launch date to no earlier than Friday, December 24.”

NASA technicians lift the James Webb Telescope, using a crane, and move it inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The scientific successor to NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built.
NASA technicians lift the James Webb Telescope, using a crane, and move it inside a clean room at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. The scientific successor to NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, Webb is the most powerful space telescope ever built. NASA/Desiree Stover

Thomas Zurbuchen, the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, has been providing further updates on the status of the telescope and its launch preparations on Twitter.

On Thursday, December 16, he shared an update: “Just in from the Webb launch site: The team has fixed the connection issue and @NASAWebb is in the midst of its final scheduled aliveness test before launch.”

Further confirmation came yesterday, Friday, December 17, when Stéphane Israël, CEO of launch provider Arianespace, wrote that, “Final encapsulation operations ongoing,” and that the team would “Need a few more hours to complete them.”

Israël also confirmed that the targeted launch date is December 24 at 12:20 a.m. UTC (7:20 p.m. ET or 4:20 p.m. PT on December 23), with final confirmation of this date expected today, Saturday, December 18.

It is not only the launch of the telescope which is complicated. The deployment of the telescope is highly complex as well, as it must perform operations such as unfolding its tennis court-sized sunshield which will protect the delicate electronics on board from the heat of the sun. The sunshield is designed in an origami-type stye in order to fold up and fit within the rocket.

“In the 29 days after liftoff, thousands of parts must work correctly, in sequence, to ensure that Webb can unfold into its final form,” NASA writes. “And as all of this takes place, Webb will fly through the expanse of space to a destination nearly one million miles away.”

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