It's finally going to happen.
After declaring that the James Webb Space Telescope had passed its ground-based tests and was undergoing preparations for shipment to the Kourou, French Guiana launch site, the long-awaited and $10 billion flagship telescope is finally launching on December 18, 2021, according to a new blog post from NASA.
Unless it's delayed again. But this is very unlikely.
James Webb's seemingly endless delays are finally over
This announcement was made jointly by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Arianespace, which is providing launch services via the Ariane 5 rocket. That might come as a surprise, especially in light of the agency's increasing reliance on Elon Musk's SpaceX, but there are reasons. Namely, the ESA is executing NASA's launch in exchange for a share of observation time via the forthcoming infrared space telescope, which will open a new window into the earliest galaxies of the cosmos. And it couldn't come soon enough. Policymakers and scientists have wrung their hands at the seemingly endless litany of technical problems that have pushed Webb's development back, again and again, causing costs to soar to unconscionable levels.
Some of this was expected, since, as a 65-ft (20-m) long space telescope that needs 50 major deployments and 178 crucial release mechanisms, the craft is brimming with potential engineering failures, every one of which must operate smoothly, lest the entire instrument fail when it reaches its orbital position near a Sun-Earth LaGrange point that's nearly 1 million miles (1.5 million km) from the Earth, and four times as far from the moon. This past summer, NASA confronted Webb's final issues while the ESA and Arianespace struggled to straighten out problems with the Ariane 5 rocket. The rocket has proven extremely reliable in its more than 25 years of service, but was grounded from August 2020 to July of this year after an issue was uncovered with the payload fairing. But luckily, Arianespace officials have solved the fairing problem via a redesign, and even made a successful launch of the rocket on July 30, 2021.
The James Webb telescope will reveal the dawn of the universe
Two more commercial satellite launches are in store for the Ariane 5 rocket, both slated for October 15, before the long-awaited lofting of the James Webb Space Telescope. "Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of perseverance," said Program Director Gregory L. Robinson of the Webb mission, at NASA's Washington Headquarters, in the NASA post. "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," added Robinson in the post. "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 he's right to be excited. Once the James Webb Space Telescope reaches its operational near-LaGrange position, scientists will begin to peer into the indescribably ancient days of the early universe, including the most distant and primitive early galaxies, expanding our grasp of universal evolution, and by extension our place in the larger scheme of the big dark abyss in the sky.