NASA’s New Space Telescope Delays Again After "Incident"

Artist impression of JWST in space. Image Credit: ESA / D. Ducros

Three things are certain in life: death, taxes (unless you are a billionaire), and that the JWST – Hubble's successor as an orbiting telescope – continues to be delayed. Fortunately, the latest delay is of only a few days. The space observatory is now expected to launch on December 22, 2021, from French Guiana.

The delay comes after an incident while the telescope was being placed in the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket that will take it into space. A clamp band, designed to keep the telescope in place within the rocket, suddenly and unexpectedly released, causing vibrations through the whole JWST. The observatory is an intricate machine, and while it has been tested to cope with the stress of being launched into space, it is important to check that everything is alright.

A NASA-led anomaly review board has been convened and conducted testing to make sure nothing was damaged in the incident. Luckily it wasn't. JWST can’t be repaired in space. It won’t be located in low-Earth orbit like Hubble but at the second Lagrangian Point or L2. That’s a special position in space roughly 1.5 million kilometers (932,000 miles) directly behind the Earth from the point of view of the Sun, and it moves with our planet at the same speed. That’s much further than any human has ever been away from Earth.

The telescope is named after former NASA administrator James Webb, a choice that has been controversial due to his role in the so-called "lavender scare" and penning a misogynistic essay. The revelations led to requests from many astronomers for the name to be changed, something that NASA declined to do following an investigation whose contents have not been made public. The telescope is a partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency. 

This article was amended to include the result of the NASA review board


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