The James Webb Space Telescope aims to vastly expand our understanding of the cosmos with its gigantic mirror and powerful suite of scientific instruments. However, we’re going to have to wait a bit longer for the breakthroughs to start. NASA has announced yet another delay for the mission. Instead of launching in early 2021, NASA is now targeting October 31, 2021.
NASA has been planning the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for longer than some people reading this have been alive. The initial design phase began in 1997 with the intention of launching in 2007. Clearly, that did not happen as we’re now 13 years past the launch date, and the telescope is still sitting on Earth. The planned launch has slipped year after year as the cost to produce the instrument has grown by leaps and bounds. Currently, the JWST has cost about $10 billion.
It could all pay off when the telescope reaches its station at the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrangian point. The large mirror and sensitive mid-infrared instruments will allow the JWST to see fainter, older objects than Hubble. But the construction process has been devilishly complex, requiring several radical redesigns along the way to ensure the best chance of success. Unlike Hubble, which is in orbit of Earth, the Webb telescope is going to be too far away for a quick repair mission if something goes wrong.
Naturally, NASA is testing the JWST in excruciating detail now that the two halves of the spacecraft are connected and all the systems integrated. The team was concerned about the timeline earlier this year as new technical challenges loomed. Last week, the project completed electrical testing, but the team still needs to go over ground systems, vibration and acoustics, and environmental tests. Adding the COVID-19 pandemic on top of that has forced an unavoidable delay.
So, that March 2021 launch won’t happen. Instead, NASA has set October 31, 2021 as the target date. Prior to this Halloween launch, the telescope will fold up to fit inside the ESA’s Ariane 5 rocket fairing. Unfolding properly will be the telescope’s first real test. If the mirror doesn’t align correctly or the sunshield gets stuck, the observatory might not function at all. We’ll just have to accept the new delay — rushing this project won’t help.