The best things take time, and flagship astronomy is no exception.
After repeated delays, it turns out a launch on Halloween of this year (Oct. 31) is just not in the cards for NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, according to a recent news conference held by the European Space Agency.
Let's be clear: this happens a lot. The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb), a flagship successor to the renowned Hubble Space Telescope, has suffered delays for more than a decade. But the capabilities promised by the forthcoming space telescope are more than worth the wait.
Ariane 5 rocket snag pushes back James Webb Space Telescope launch
Launching a new space telescope is not an easy proposition. The Webb project has gone nearly $8 billion over budget, and it's 14 years past its initial launch date, compared to the most ambitious timeframe and optimistic cost assessment from the Government Accountability Office. But, sadly, there is a nontrivial possibility that the Ariane 5 rocket expected to lift Webb to space won't be ready in time.
Not to say there hasn't been substantial progress. In May, the NASA mission team unfolded Webb's colossal, golden mirror for the last time before it leaves our atmosphere, during a major prelaunch test of the telescope's primary mirror systems. As of writing, Webb is set for shipment to Kourou, French Guiana, this August, where it will be hoisted upon the Arianespace Ariane 5 rocket. But the erstwhile Oct. 31 launch date has now been pushed back to November 2021.
During the ESA news conference, a Space Intel reporter asked whether a late-August shipping date for Webb meant it wouldn't be ready to launch until November, citing the mission's 10-week processing schedule. "I think your assessment is approximately correct," said NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen, during the conference, confirming the reporter's suspicions. "It depends on the days that are here, but the assessment that you're outlining is correct." Slightly frowning emojis surely followed.
James Webb Space Telescope to unveil new frontiers of the ancient universe
Earlier, on May 11, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Webb Project Manager Bill Ochs responded to a different question about the possibility of alternate launch dates, stating simply that "there are many," according to a Space.com report. "We're not unlike a planetary mission. We have launch windows, virtually every day. They'll vary in length and size, typically in the morning. We don't have the exact time yet for the October 31 launch date, but we have multiple opportunities for launch if we have a weather delay or whatever type of delay that may occur."
"The James Webb Space Telescope will be a giant leap forward in our quest to understand the Universe and our origins. JWST will examine every phase of cosmic history: from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets to the evolution of our own solar system", said a 2015 NASA press release. Webb itself is ready to launch from French Guiana in South America. It's been a very long haul, but the flagship space telescope's future could unveil unprecedented knowledge about the oldest reaches of the unconscionably distant universe.