NASA has announced a new launch date target for the James Webb Space Telescope: October 31, 2021. This represents a seven-month delay for the already much-delayed mission, which was originally scheduled to launch next March, largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket will still carry the observatory into space from French Guiana.
The James Webb Space Telescope undergoes a comprehensive systems test earlier this year.
Thanks to reserves set aside earlier on, officials say the mission will stick to its congressionally mandated $8.8 billion development budget. That means the mission can continue its development without going back to Congress to ask for additional funding, which it last had to do when facing a 10-month delay in 2019. The new October 2021 launch date was set to take into account pandemic-related changes, including augmented safety precautions and reduced on-site personnel, as well as technical challenges outlined by the Government Accountability Office last January.
The mission had already been due for a schedule reassessment in April to address challenges outlined in this report, but that was itself delayed by the pandemic. “The agency made the decision to relook at schedule margins,” program director Gregory Robinson (NASA) explained in a press conference earlier today. “We hadn’t made a decision to change the launch date and weren’t sure if we would have to at that time.” Robinson estimates that the pandemic was responsible for at least three months of the delay.
Nevertheless, NASA officials were full of praise for the performance of the NASA and Northrop Grumman team managing Webb’s development over the past year. The observatory has already gone through much of the final testing over the past year, but two tests remain that carry some risk, Robinson said. The first is the acoustics and vibration tests, to see if the observatory will survive the launch itself. The instruments and the spacecraft have passed vibration testing individually, but still need to be tested again now that they’re together. The other test is a second round of “deploy-and-stow” of the highly complex, seven-layer sunshield, which will keep the instruments cool enough to observe the infrared universe in unprecedented detail.
Vibration tests are set to begin in August. Officials expect that by early next year, the tennis-court-size observatory will be folded origami-style for shipment to the launch site, where it will be fitted into the Ariane 5 rocket fairing for launch.
Read more about the history and complexity of the James Webb Space Telescope.
Watch videos of Webb’s progress: