JWST Launch Slips Two Days

JWST Launch Slips Two Days

NASA said today that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope now will take place no earlier than December 24, a slip from December 22, which itself was a slip from December 18. The delay is due to a communications problem between the telescope and its Ariane 5 rocket. As launch of the $10 billion telescope nears, NASA and its partners don’t want to take any chances.

JWST is a partnership among NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). As part of its contribution, ESA is providing the launch at no cost to NASA. The launch is on Europe’s Ariane 5 rocket from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana on the northeast coast of South America.

The James Webb Space Telescope is its folded configuration for launch at the Ariane 5 processing center in Kourou, French Guiana. Credit: NASA

Northrop Grumman is JWST’s prime contractor and the telescope was shipped by boat from its facility near Los Angeles to French Guiana in October, arriving after a 16-day ocean journey through the Panama Canal.

In the weeks since then, it has been at Arianespace’s processing facility in Kourou in preparation for launch. Last month a clamp needed to attach it to the rocket released unexpectedly, causing vibrations through the telescope that required more inspections to ensure nothing was damaged.

It was cleared for launch and on Saturday JWST was lifted 40 meters (130 feet) to be placed atop the Ariane 5.

This evening, NASA said the JWST team is working a “communication issue between the observatory and the launch vehicle system.” Consequently, the launch is delayed to “no earlier than Friday, Dec. 24.” The agency promised it will “provide more informaton about the new launch date no later than Friday, Dec. 17.”

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope which is in Earth orbit and was serviced by five space shuttle crews, JWST is being sent to the Sun-Earth L2 (SEL-2) Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometers (1 million miles) away. It is not designed to be serviced and there is no capability to do so today in any case.

Once it lifts off from Kourou, it is on its own and must get itself to SEL-2 and unfold its instruments, sunshield, and other equipment without human intervention. Everything must be as perfect as possible before the rocket’s ignition command is sent and “29 Days on the Edge” begin.

Illustration of the James Webb Space Telescope in its deployed state, with its gold-plated mirror and multi-layered sunshield to protect it from the heat of the Sun. Credit: NASA

JWST is years behind schedule and billions over cost.  NASA estimates its share of the development cost at $8.8 billion, with another $900 million for five years of operations once it is launched, a total of $9.7 billion.

That does not include the costs borne by CSA and ESA. In a June 1, 2021 ESA media briefing, CSA’s Director General for Space Exploration Gilles Leclerc said Canada has spent $200 million Canadian ($160 million U.S.) on JWST and ESA’s Director of Science, Günther Hasinger, said ESA’s cost is about 700 million Euros ($860 million). Hasinger emphasized that is not directly comparable to NASA’s figure because ESA member states contribute individually as well as through ESA.  Scientists’ salaries also are paid by their home institutions, not ESA.

That brings the total cost of JWST to about $10 billion not including operations.

Support for JWST has remained strong despite its overruns and schedule delays because of the promise it holds to unlock the secrets of the early universe through its infrared eyes.

JWST’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) was provided by the University of Arizona, the Near-Infrared Spectrograph (NIRSpec) by ESA, and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) jointly by NASA and the European Consortium (led by the U.K.) with ESA. Canada provided the Fine Guidance Sensor/Near InfraRed Imager and Slitless Spectrograph (FGS/NIRISS).

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