‘Communication Issue’ Delays Much-Anticipated Launch of Webb Telescope

‘Communication Issue’ Delays Much-Anticipated Launch of Webb Telescope
The Webb space telescope being 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 has to do with a communications issue, which we can only hope is not serious.

NASA’s latest update to the Webb launch situation was clear, concise, and grammatically incorrect. “The James Webb Space Telescope team is working a communication issue between the observatory and the launch vehicle system,” the space agency posted to its Webb telescope blog. “This will delay the launch date to no earlier than Friday, Dec. 24. We will provide more information about the new launch date no later than Friday, Dec. 17.”

That’s a delay of two days, as the highly anticipated (and anxiety-provoking) space observatory had been scheduled for launch on December 22. A two-day delay doesn’t sound serious, but because no further details were given, it’s hard to know.

In November, a processing incident at a satellite preparation facility in Kourou, French Guiana, caused a vibration to course through the entire $US10 (A$14) billion telescope, resulting in a four-day delay. The incident happened as Arianespace technicians were preparing to mount Webb to the launch vehicle adaptor. A NASA-led investigation found no lingering issues and declared the observatory “ready for flight.”

Good progress has been made since then. The telescope has been fuelled up, transported to the final assembly building at Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, and placed atop the Ariane 5 rocket that will take it to space. As the Webb blog noted on December 14, the telescope “was slowly hoisted nearly 40 metres and then perfectly aligned on top of the Ariane 5, after which technicians bolted Webb’s launch vehicle adaptor down to the rocket.”

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

The incident with the vibration and now the communications issue are just two of many problems to afflict the project over the years. Webb, a collaboration between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian Space Agency, was supposed to launch years ago, but ongoing technical challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other issues have resulted in a seemingly endless succession of delays.

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