Sad news, space fans. The James Webb Space Telescope, the next Great Observatory in our sky, will likely be delayed again as it's unlikely NASA can meet the proposed launch date of March 2021. A document released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) states that there is now only a 12 percent chance the observatory will launch then.
The last of these reports was published in March 2019 and since then the project has made huge steps forward. Unfortunately, it has also used a lot of its scheduled reserve, the extra time set aside to accommodate unforeseen risks and delays.
“As of October 2019, the project had used about 76 percent of its available schedule reserve and no longer plans to launch in November 2020,” the GAO report explains. “The project is now working towards a March 2021 launch date but estimates only a 12 percent likelihood that this date will be achieved.”
It is not certain that the launch will be postponed, but it's not looking good. Twelve percent is way below the previous 70 percent confidence level that NASA had when the date was moved in 2018. That said, the GAO is not advising the launch be postponed – yet.
"The project does not currently intend to change the launch readiness date in response to this analysis alone but plans to assess the feasibility of the launch readiness date again in spring 2020 after significant technical tasks are completed," the report reads.
The JWST launch has been delayed several times already but it is a bit unfair saying that the project is plagued by delays. The delays are unwelcome but necessary. The telescope is an incredibly complex machine and it is imperative everything goes smoothly because if something doesn’t, there won’t be any way of fixing it.
For comparison, the Hubble Space Telescope is located in low-Earth orbit roughly 568 kilometers (353 miles) up. Its relative proximity has allowed for several servicing missions over its almost 30 years of service. The Webb, on the other hand, will be located 1.5 million kilometers (a bit less than 1 million miles) away, far beyond where any human has ventured.
From the moment of launch to almost three weeks later, when the telescope will slowly unfold, nothing can go wrong. These "weeks of terror" are constantly in the minds of the team working on the Webb, so it is truly better to be safer now than sorry later.