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NASA delays James Webb Space Telescope launch date by at least seven months

Damn you coronavirus, and save some anger for the technical challenges plaguing heir-to-Hubble

NASA has announed a seven-month delay to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the thirty-year-old Hubble Space Telescope.

The delays are in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant fewer staff were able to work on the ‘scope and when they did work progress was slowed by “augmented safety precautions.” Those factors meant that a planned review of the project intended for April was concluded last week.

On top of showing that work has slowed, the review found unspecified “technical challenges” that will take extra time to overcome.

NASA therefore moved Webb’s target launch date from March 2021 to October of the same year.

“Although efficiency has been affected and there are challenges ahead, we have retired significant risk through the achievements and good schedule performance over the past year,” said Gregory Robinson, NASA Webb program director. “After resuming full operations to prepare for upcoming final observatory system-level environmental testing this [northern] summer, major progress continues towards preparing this highly complex observatory for launch.”

For now, work continues. NASA said that this week the ‘scope passed electrical testing, setting the stage for acoustics and vibration environmental tests in August. Ground system tests are under way.

When Webb launches it will use a 6.5m mirror (Hubble’s is just 2.4m) capable of observing red-shifted objects that Hubble can’t view. Boffins expect that those powers, plus its future home at the L2 Lagrange point, will give us our best-ever view of the universe.

The craft is also notable for its “origami” design that will see it perform a series of intricate unfolding manoeuvres to deploy its sun-shield and mirrors. ®

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