The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next great observatory, has been delayed once again. The new target launch date is October 31, 2021. The telescope will launch from French Guiana.
The impact to the previous launch target of March 2021 is due to a combination of factors brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and technical challenges, according to the agency.
The telescope will answer questions about our solar system, study exoplanets in new ways and peer deeper into the universe than we’ve ever been able to.
It comes equipped with a mirror that can extend 21 feet and 4 inches – a massive length that will allow the mirror to collect more light from the objects it observes once the telescope is in space. The more light the mirror can collect, the more details the telescope can observe.
It’s the largest mirror NASA has ever built, the agency said, but its size created a unique problem. The mirror was so large that it couldn’t fit inside a rocket. So they designed the telescope as a series of moving parts that can fold origami-style and fit inside a 16-foot space for launch.
But it won’t launch yet. Three months of the delay were attributed to the coronavirus pandemic, two were added for schedule margin and two were also tacked on to test and understand mechanisms like folding and stowing the telescope’s sun shield and work on risk reductions, NASA officials said during a Thursday press conference.
While NASA confirmed it’s tracking an uptick in coronavirus cases at its centers in Florida, Texas and Alabama, it doesn’t believe any transmission has occurred at any of its facilities or locations. The centers have encouraged employees to work from home, wear masks on site and social distance.
The telescope was supposed to go through an assessment in April of this year, with a decision expected in May about the launch date, but the pandemic changed their plans and pushed the assessment until now.
“The perseverance and innovation of the entire Webb Telescope team has enabled us to work through challenging situations we could not have foreseen on our path to launch this unprecedented mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.
“Webb is the world’s most complex space observatory, and our top science priority, and we’ve worked hard to keep progress moving during the pandemic,” said Zurbuchen. “The team continues to be focused on reaching milestones and arriving at the technical solutions that will see us through to this new launch date next year.”
The telescope has been going through testing at Northrop Grumman, an industry partner of the mission, in Redondo Beach, California, including testing of its giant mirror in March and a recent Comprehensive Systems Test. This is the first full systems evaluation that has ever been run on the assembled observatory, according to NASA.
The pandemic caused a reduction of personnel and shift work to take safety precautions, as well as other technical challenges. NASA’s main concerns in launching an observatory of this size and complexity include the acoustics and vibration experienced by the telescope during launch.
In August, the team will put the telescope through acoustics and vibration environmental tests, as well as ground system testing. Every aspect of Webb will be tested ahead of launch.
A previous assessment and shift of the launch date allowed NASA to put reserves in place, so the telescope will stay within its $8.8 billion development cost cap, according to NASA.
“Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule without requiring additional funds,” said Gregory Robinson, NASA Webb program director at the agency’s headquarters.
“Although efficiency has been affected and there are challenges ahead, we have retired significant risk through the achievements and good schedule performance over the past year,” said Robinson. “After resuming full operations to prepare for upcoming final observatory system-level environmental testing this summer, major progress continues towards preparing this highly complex observatory for launch.”
More assessments and final testing will continue of the observatory before it’s shipped next summer to Kourou, French Guiana, which is located on the northeastern coast of South America.
“Webb is designed to build upon the incredible legacies of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, by observing the infrared universe and exploring every phase of cosmic history,” said Eric Smith, NASA Webb’s program scientist at the agency’s headquarters.
“The observatory will detect light from the first generation of galaxies that formed in the early universe after the big bang and study the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for possible signs of habitability.”
Each space telescope’s discoveries
The telescope was named for former NASA administrator James Webb, who ran the agency during the Space Race from February 1961 to October 1968. NASA officials said that while Webb is linked to the Apollo program, he also supported the agency’s balance of human space flight and science.
Each telescope builds on the knowledge gained from the previous one. In the case of James Webb, its mirror is 50 times larger than previous space telescopes – like the recently retired Spitzer Space Telescope – and it can observe even deeper into the universe.
Spitzer, as well as NASA’s ongoing planet-hunting Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) mission, have helped scientists establish targets for follow-up by Webb, including some of Spitzer’s “greatest hits.”
For example, in February 2017 astronomers announced their discovery of seven Earth-size planets orbiting a star 40 light-years from Earth. With Spitzer’s help, the seven exoplanets were all found in tight formation around an ultracool dwarf star called TRAPPIST-1.
The planets all bear the TRAPPIST name – which the researchers borrowed from their favorite beer.
Some of the planned targets for Webb include TRAPPIST-1b and TRAPPIST-1e, which could support liquid water on their surfaces. Finding water could suggest the potential for life as well. Another planned target for early in the mission is WASP-18b, a blazing hot Jupiter with an atmosphere, according to NASA.
Webb is also well equipped to shed light on the mysteries of planet formation. Building off Spitzer’s work studying brown dwarfs – objects that are too large to be planets but too small to be stars – Webb can take a closer look at their cloud properties.
Spitzer was known for looking deep into the universe, studying galaxies that formed in the early days of the Big Bang. Webb is more sensitive, so it will be able to peer back even further.
“We’ll be able to see some of the earliest galaxies to form in the universe that we’ve never seen before,” said Amber Straughn, deputy project scientist for James Webb Space Telescope Science Communications.