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James Webb Space Telescope may actually truly launch this century, says NASA

Will it fly by Christmas? Betteridge's law probably applies

The very-much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope is being pumped with fuel and prepared for liftoff after an anomaly knocked back its launch date to no earlier than December 22.

“Engineering teams have completed additional testing confirming NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is ready for flight, and launch preparations are resuming toward Webb’s target launch date of Wednesday, Dec 22, at 0720 EST,” the US space agency said in a statement.

The observatory was due to fly on December 18 but was held back after a "sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band." The clamp band attaches the telescope to the launch vehicle adapter and the accidental release sent a vibration rippling through the instrument. A panel of experts led by NASA conducted a series of tests to check for any potential damage, and concluded the telescope was fine.

Engineers are now fueling its thrusters with propellant as they prepare to launch the telescope aboard an ESA Ariane 5 rocket in the next few weeks. “A ‘consent to fuel’ review was held, and NASA gave approval to begin fueling the observatory,” NASA confirmed. “Fueling operations ... will take about 10 days” from November 25, the agency added.

The JWST has been plagued with multiple delays. Development work on the space telescope began in 1996 with a target launch date in 2007. The project, however, morphed and stalled as scientists redesigned the instrument, and costs increased from $500m to $10bn.

It was finally put together in 2019, though work was temporarily halted by the COVID-19 pandemic. NASA hoped to finally send the observatory to the cosmos on Halloween this year, but ended up pushing the launch back by a few months to December.

It will be the most advanced telescope to observe the heavens yet, once it finally gets to space. Armed with four main instruments, including spectrographs and cameras, the JWST will mainly operate across infrared wavelengths.

It’s most notable feature, a yellow-colored hexagonal mirror system, measuring about 6.5 metres in diameter, gives it a wider and deeper view allowing it to observe objects further away compared to other observatories.

The JWST will also be further out, too; it’ll orbit from the Earth-Sun L2 Lagrange point at a distance of 1.5 million kilometres (930,000 miles). This makes it impossible to upgrade, as Hubble was, so NASA's making every effort to get it right the first time. ®


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