The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is set to launch – surprise, surprise – a little later than expected. Space agencies in America, Europe, and Canada said on Wednesday they’re now aiming for December 18, 2021 rather than October.
The huge $10bn instrument, said to be the most advanced of its kind, will be neatly folded and lift off from Earth using an Ariane 5 rocket provided by ESA and operated by Arianespace. NASA said it will ship the JWST from Northrop Grumman’s workshop in Redondo Beach, California, to Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America, where the telescope will lift off … if everything goes to plan.
The project to build the space observatory began a quarter of a century ago in 1996. NASA’s plans for it were less grand back then, and the agency hoped to get the telescope into the heavens by 2007 for one-twentieth of today’s budget. But then the mission just kept growing: more money was needed and poured into it, designs were changed, and delays were encountered.
The JWST was finally assembled some 12 years late in 2019, a year after it managed to tear its sun shield in a test. And then work to prepare it for launch was paused when the coronavirus pandemic kicked off in 2020.
After all this, NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency still hoped the telescope would take off this coming October 31. Now the launch has been delayed yet again to the end of the year.
“Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of perseverance,” said Gregory Robinson, the telescope’s program director at NASA.
“I am inspired by our dedicated team and our global partnerships that have made this incredible endeavor possible. Together, we’ve overcome technical obstacles along the way as well as challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I also am grateful for the steadfast support of Congress. Now that we have an observatory and a rocket ready for launch, I am looking forward to the big day and the amazing science to come.”
And it has been a long time coming.
“We now know the day that thousands of people have been working towards for many years, and that millions around the world are looking forward to,” Günther Hasinger, ESA Director of Science, added. “Webb and its Ariane 5 launch vehicle are ready, thanks to the excellent work across all mission partners. We are looking forward to seeing the final preparations for launch at Europe’s Spaceport.”
The Canadians chipped in that they built the JWST’s Fine Guidance Sensor and its NIRISS science instrument. We’re told the telescope was cleared for its December launch date following “the successful completion of final tests in August.”
The telescope will probe light sources in space mostly across infrared wavelengths; we’re talking objects like young stars and planets shrouded by dust. It will help astronomers see old galaxies beyond the reach of today’s telescopes so that scientists can better study the universe’s history. ®