JWST Launch Slips 4 Days Due to Processing Accident

JWST Launch Slips 4 Days Due to Processing Accident

The launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is slipping by four days because of an accident that happened while technicians were getting ready to mate it to the Ariane 5 rocket that will send it off into deep space. A clamp released unexpectedly and sent vibrations through the spacecraft. More time now is needed to do tests to ensure everything is still OK.  The new date is December 22.

JWST is an international project among NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency. As part of its contribution, ESA is providing the launch on Arianespace’s Ariane 5 at no cost to NASA.

The Ariane 5 launch site is in Kourou, French Guiana, on the northeast coast of South America. JWST was transported there by boat last month from Northrop Grumman’s manufacturing facility near Los Angeles. Northrop Grumman is the prime contractor for the project, which is managed at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA and its partners set December 18 at the launch date in September, but NASA officials stress it can launch almost any day. Unlike spacecraft headed to planetary bodies that are only in alignment with Earth at specific intervals, JWST is headed to a point in space a million miles from Earth — the Sun-Earth 2 Lagrange Point (SEL2) — and can be launched on almost any day.

James Webb Space Telescope out of its crate but still in its folded configuration for launch in the processing facility at Arianespace’s Guiana Space Centre, Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: NASA

Still, at this point in the project’s long history, any bump in the road causes shudders. Years late and billions over budget, the roughly $9 billion telescope (counting only NASA’s development costs, not operations or costs borne by Europe and Canada) is finally on the brink of getting off the planet.

NASA explained in a November 22 blog post that the accident happened as technicians were getting ready to attach JWST to a launch vehicle adapter needed to integrate the telescope with the Ariane 5’s upper stage.

“The incident occurred during operations at the satellite preparation facility in Kourou, French Guiana, performed under Arianespace overall responsibility. Technicians were preparing to attach Webb to the launch vehicle adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory with the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket. A sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band – which secures Webb to the launch vehicle adapter – caused a vibration throughout the observatory.” — NASA blog post

The blog post did not mention that the incident had occured almost two weeks earlier. In a separate statement provided to reporters upon request, NASA said it happened on November 9, but did not explain why it took so long to reveal it even though two JWST press briefings took place in between.

“The incident occurred on November 9. The Anomaly Review Board was convened immediately and began its investigation. Late on November 20, the board determined additional testing was warranted, and the launch readiness date was moved to allow for this testing.”  — NASA statement provided upon request

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, JWST is not designed to be serviced by astronauts, so once it lifts off, it is on its own. Everything has to be perfect before launch. NASA convened an anomaly review board to make that assessment and in the blog post promised an update at the end of the week.

JWST’s journey will continue to be nerve-wracking for a month after launch as it makes its long journey to SEL2 and unfolds itself into its operational configuation.  In contrast to the “Seven Minutes of Terror” for the Curiosity and Perseverance Mars rovers as they descended through the Martian atmosphere, JWST’s team calls it 29 Days on the Edge.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope fully deployed with its mirror, made of 18 gold petals, and scientific instruments attached to the sunshield that will  protect the telescope from the Sun. JWST is an infrared telescope so the instruments must be maintained at very cold temperatures to do their jobs. Image credit: NASA

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