Enlarge /. The James Webb space telescope is scheduled to be launched in October 2021.
NASA officials announced on Thursday that they are now targeting a launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope on October 31, 2021. This is a seven-month delay from the previously announced date for the $ 10 billion telescope in March 2021, which will allow scientists to look deeper into the universe than ever before.
In a conference call, NASA scientists said the recent delay was mainly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only have NASA employees and the prime contractor of the telescope, Northrop Grumman, lost working time – they worked two shifts before the pandemic broke out – the new schedule also takes into account the potential for additional time loss due to the virus.
Due to the additional scope in the schedule, NASA officials were confident about the new date. "We don't expect to go beyond October 31," said Gregory Robinson, NASA's Webb program director.
Thomas Zurbuchen, who heads science programs for the space agency, said NASA had spoken to the European Space Agency about the new date and confirmed that an Ariane 5 rocket would be available for the new launch date. The telescope will launch from the European spaceport in French Guiana.
The telescope currently has three months "schedule reserve" with the new start date, which means that for technical or pandemic reasons it can lose so much time between now and next October and still start on time. A reserve of three months at this point in a major project is about normal. Apart from a major disaster or a significant deterioration in the COVID-19 pandemic, it therefore seems reasonable to have confidence in the new launch date.
Zurbuchen noted that in the quarter before March and the outbreak of the pandemic, work on the Webb telescope wasted no time.
If NASA can keep to the existing schedule and no major additional problems arise, the officials also believe that the project's existing budget will cover the cost of the delay – which means that the space agency doesn't have to go back to Congress to ask for more money .
The Webb telescope, NASA's follow-up instrument to the hugely successful Hubble space telescope, was originally intended to be launched about a decade ago with a development cost of $ 1 billion. Since then, technical problems and delays have burdened the complex telescope.
Webb was difficult to build because its 6.5-meter mirror has to unfold as soon as it reaches an orbit of about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth. This is an extremely complex process and there are more than 300 individual sources of error on board the observatory. NASA struggled to test them all on Earth in conditions that mimicked the temperatures, pressures, and microgravity of space.