The James Webb space telescope was supposed to be launched next March. Unfortunately the development of the instrument has (again) lagged behind. NASA officials are now targeting a new date: October 31, 2021.
The James Webb Telescope, designated as the worthy successor to Hubble, was to be launched initially in 2018. However, various technical problems have arisen, systematically postponing the launch date and increasing the bill a little more.
The latest news was that the telescope would be launched next March. Unfortunately last month, NASA chief scientist Thomas Zurbuchen again stressed that it would be impossible to meet this deadlines. The cause: the Covid-19 pandemic.
The state of California (United States), where the instrument is currently located, had indeed been placed in containment for most of the last 3 months. Assuming that only essential travel was therefore permitted in the region, not everyone was available on NASA premises.
In the end, only a quarter of the staff normally deployed on the telescope were able to continue its development during this period, said Zurbuchen.
This Thursday, agency officials and Northrop Grumman, the telescope’s main contractor, finally agreed on a new date: October 31, 2021. This new date gives mission managers three months of additional “programming reserve”. This means that they can lose as much time for technical or pandemic reasons by next October and still launch the telescope on time.
Unless there is a major event, it therefore seems reasonable to imagine that, this time, the deadlines could be respected. “We don’t expect to go beyond October 31,” said Gregory Robinson of NASA.
The European Space Agency (ESA) has confirmed that an Ariane 5 rocket will be available when the time comes. It is therefore still planned that the telescope will be launched from the European spaceport in French Guiana.
Once in space, the James Webb Telescope will be positioned around the Lagrange point L2 of the Sun-Earth system, 1.5 million kilometers from Earth on the side opposite the Sun. From there, thanks to its “eye” focused on infrared wavelengths, it will be able to probe the primitive universe like never before.
The telescope can then observe the first stars and galaxies forming. It will also be able to measure the molecular composition of the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets, thus making it possible to estimate their degree of habitability.