Confirmed: The 2021 James Webb telescope launch really is delayed

By this time next year, NASA expected to have a new observatory in orbit, one that would make the Hubble Space Telescope look like a kid’s toy. Unfortunately, we will need to wait a little longer for the next generation of stunning space photographs.

The launch window for the James Webb Space telescope has been officially pushed back once again, this time as a result of the impact the global pandemic has wrought on testing schedules.

NASA has now confirmed what has been suspected since testing and integration was suspended three months ago, announcing last Wednesday that the planned March 2021 launch date has been scrapped.

“We will not launch in March,” NASA associate administrator for science, Thomas Zurbuchen, explained during a meeting of the Space Studies Board of the National Academies.

“That is not in the cards right now. It’s not because they did anything wrong.”

To be fair, that March deadline was a little tenuous to begin with, with a Government Accountability Office report predicting just a 12 percent chance of a March launch at the beginning of the year. And that was months before a certain coronavirus exploded onto the scene.

Like most of the state’s population, workers at Northrop Grumman facility in Southern California were sent home to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Exemptions were put in place for those working in critical manufacturing industries, which included aerospace. But in spite of occasional tests, including the recent deployment of a critical assembly designed to separate temperature sensitive equipment, having fewer hands on deck has inevitably cost valuable time.

Prior to the shut-down, Northrop devoted a dozen 10-hour shifts each week to the telescope. That has since been reduced to five shifts per week, and even those were just eight hours each.

“NASA and international personnel required onsite for upcoming tests and deployments cannot be present as scheduled,” Zurbuchen said.

The US$9 billion project has been beleaguered by delays since it was kicked off nearly a quarter of a century ago, so another wait might come as no surprise to many of us.

The sheer scale of the endeavour has also made predictions on cost and timing a gamble, with initial estimates putting it at roughly US$1 billion to US$3.5 billion and a launch date of anywhere from 2007 to 2011.

We should have a new date once a schedule review has been conducted, which is planned for some time next month. Fingers are still crossed for a 2021 launch.

Regular blow-outs are par for the course when it comes to groundbreaking endeavours, but the expanding costs and ongoing delays have raised questions on the role NASA might play in future projects that push the envelope.

Zurbuchen is adamant missions like this play a vital role in science, and the space administration has a responsibility to provide them.

“NASA needs to do flagships. We need to learn how to do flagships,” he said.

“The challenge with flagships has been, and we’re spending a lot of effort in learning about it, is to manage them in a way so that they don’t eat the neighborhood.”

Granted, nobody could have expected the horror show 2020 has turned into.

And given the ambitious nature of the telescope’s advanced technology, nobody wants to find out something doesn’t work when it’s nestled into an orbit some 1.6 million kilometres (around a million miles) overhead, either.

So this is one delay we just have to swallow.

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