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Confirmed: James Webb Space Telescope team plans launch for this Xmas Eve after data cable fix

Have all those scientists been naughty ... or nice?

Updated The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has been confirmed for December 24* after engineers investigated and fixed up a communications problem on board the booster and spacecraft combo.

During a briefing on Thursday, ESA and NASA representatives – including the US space agency's Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator, Thomas Zurbuchen – extolled the scientific potential of the immensely over-budget and hugely delayed observatory, currently perched atop an Ariane 5 rocket at ArianeSpace's French Guiana facility.

And it was during this briefing that the communications gremlin that resulted in the date for the launch moving from December 22 to "not earlier than" Christmas Eve was discussed.

At the heart of the problem was a data cable used in an aliveness test that confirms systems are working and talking to each other as expected. This test must be cleared before the telescope can be encapsulated prior to launch. Zurbuchen told attendees he was optimistic the issue had been solved, however work would not proceed until after a decision was taken at 1800 ET.

Well, it's gone 6pm on the US East Coast and Zurbuchen says the cable problem has been sorted out, and the launch is on track for December 24, though we're awaiting a final confirmation that won't come until sometime Friday:

Once the 'scope is encapsulated things should move at a more normal pace toward launch, although Zurbuchen joked earlier that nothing was routine when it came to the James Webb Space Telescope.

It is fair to say that nerves are stretched taut as the days count down toward the launch. The Ariane 5 has proven to be a reliable workhorse over the years and the observatory itself has been through thorough testing. What could possibly go wrong?

One possibility cropped up via the medium of an imaginatively altered publicity shot originally showing the telescope being hoisted into the air ready for attachment to its Ariane 5.

We should also make it clear that Catherine was not the originator of the image above. It has, however, been doing the rounds within at least one space agency. A bit of gallows humor for the scientists concerned, we'd wager.

As part of the international agreements behind the JWST, ESA is providing launch services. After decades of development, it is completely understandable that engineers wish to leave nothing to chance. At least as far as is possible.

After the years of delay incurred so far, what is a few more days? ®

Updated at 08:59 UTC to add:

ESA director general Josef Aschbacher has just confirmed the Christmas Eve launch:

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