The launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope has been delayed again as teams face a number of challenges.
Prior to this most recent delay, the telescope had been scheduled to lift off on Halloween aboard an Ariane 5 from the Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana.
During a press briefing with reporters on June 1, the director of launch services for James Webb Beatriz Romero confirmed that the team was currently assessing a number of different factors in order to set a new launch date. These factors include when the telescope will be ready to ship, the flight worthiness of the Ariane 5 vehicle which has been grounded since August 2020 with fairing issues, and the readiness of the launch facility.
Currently undergoing its final checkouts before the telescope is folding up and readied for transport, prime contractors Northrop Grumman are expecting to ship James Web towards the end of August. The exact date and nature of these shipping arrangements are being kept confidential over fears that the $10 billion instrument could be captured by pirates during its voyage.
Once James Webb arrives in French Guiana safely, teams will need a minimum of 55 days to prepare the telescope and the Ariane 5 vehicle for launch which would likely result in a mid-November launch. However, the European launch facility has yet to move to full operation following COVID-19 lockdowns. As vaccines are still not widely available in the country, any increase in infection rates could further slow operations.
Finally, the Ariane V launch vehicle will be required to complete two other missions successfully before being cleared to carry James Webb. These missions are currently scheduled for July and August with delays possible.
The Ariane V vehicle was grounded in August last year following the discovery of an issue with the rocket’s fairing over its last two issues. Although the issue did not affect the outcome of the missions, Arianespace and the European Space Agency decided to ground the vehicle until a solution could be found.
“The origin of the problem has been found. Corrective actions have been taken,” said acting head of Ariane 5 adaptations and future missions at ESA Daniel de Chambure. “The qualification review has started, so we should be able to confirm all that within a few days or weeks.”
With challenges facing almost every aspect of the mission, a late-2021 launch is becoming increasingly unlikely. Arianespace has reserved a launch period for James Web between October 31 and early December. It is currently unclear if the European launch provider is examining the possibility of extending that launch window or if it is betting that it can pull off the improbable.