‘Communication problem’ delays long-awaited launch of Webb telescope


The Webb Space Telescope is hoisted to the top of an Ariane 5 rocket. Photo: ESA/M. pedoussaut

Another day, another problem with the Webb Space Telescope. The new delay is related to a communication problem, which we can only hope is not serious.

NASA’s latest update on the Webb launch situation was clear, concise and grammatically incorrect. “The James Webb Space Telescope team is working on a communication problem between the observatory and the launch vehicle system,” the space agency said. Posted to his Webb telescope blog. “As a result, the launch date will be postponed to no earlier than Friday, December 24. We will provide more information about the new launch date by Friday, December 17.”

That’s a two-day delay, as the highly anticipated (and terrifying) space observatory was scheduled to launch on December 22. A two-day delay doesn’t sound serious, but as no further details were given, it’s hard to know.

In November, a processing incident at a satellite preparation facility in Kourou, French Guiana, a tremor sent through the entire $10 billion telescope, resulting in a four-day delay. The incident occurred as Arianespace engineers prepared to mount Webb to the launcher adapter. A NASA-led investigation found no lingering problems and explained the observatory “ready for flight.”

Good progress has been made since then. The telescope is refueled, transported to the final assembly building at the European spaceport in French Guiana, and placed on top the Ariane 5 rocket that will take him to space. Like the Webb blog noted on December 14, the telescope was “slowly lifted almost 130 feet” [40 meters] and then aligned perfectly on top of the Ariane 5, after which engineers screwed Webb’s launcher adapter onto the rocket.

A successor to the still active but struggling Hubble Space Telescope, Webb will use his infrared capabilities to study distant planets, stars and some of the oldest galaxies in the universe.

The vibration incident and now the communication problem are just two of the many problems the project has faced over the years. Webb, a collaboration between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency, was supposed to be launched years ago, but continues technical challenges, the covid-19 pandemic, and other problems have led to a seemingly endless succession of delays.

The current year alone has seen multiple delays as the observatory was set to launch in March, October and November — including October 31. I suppose the new target date of Christmas Eve is much less ominous than a Halloween launch.

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