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NASA pushes back James Webb telescope launch date by seven months

The towering primary mirror of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope stands inside a cleanroom in 2017 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA Photo by Chris Gunn/UPI
The towering primary mirror of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope stands inside a cleanroom in 2017 at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston. NASA Photo by Chris Gunn/UPI | License Photo

July 16 (UPI) -- The launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope has been postponed by more seven months to Oct. 31, 2021, due partly to workplace restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic, NASA said Thursday.

NASA had been working toward a launch in March, and the postponement is the latest in a series of delays for the project, which was conceived of in 1996 with an original launch target date in 2007.

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The new telescope is to be "the world's premier space science observatory and will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe" the origins of the universe, according to NASA.

It is to orbit the sun, keeping up with Earth's orbit -- but at nearly 1 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft is intended to function for at least 10 years.

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NASA said development of the telescope has continued during the pandemic, but the number of people working on it has been reduced at times, and that required the agency to move back the launch date.

"The team was practicing COVID-19 workday protocols like social distancing ... and significantly reduced on-site personnel and shifts," Gregory Robinson, NASA's Webb program director, said during a press conference Thursday.

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By Monday, NASA had completed the first software and electrical tests since the telescope was fully assembled.

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The spacecraft is the largest and most technically complex telescope NASA ever has built, according to the space agency. The testing was designed to ensure the many components worked together properly.

Those tests lasted for 15 days, 24 hours a day, according to NASA. In the process, the technology executed over 1,000 software scripts -- sequences of instructions.

The U.S. space program considers James Webb to be a replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990.

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NASA planned the James Webb telescope with an original budget of about $1 billion. But the official budget estimate grew to near $9 billion. NASA expects Hubble, which is still operating, to remain operational through 2030.

The new telescope will be "the world's premier space science observatory and will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe" the origins of the universe, NASA said.

The instrument is built by Northrop Grumman in a program led by NASA with the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. It is named after James Edwin Webb, NASA's second administrator, who served from 1961 to 1968.

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Technicians will next run the telescope through acoustics and sound vibration tests, NASA officials said.

The mission is to launch aboard an Ariane 5 rocket from Guiana Space Centre, a French and European spaceport in French Guiana, which was the European Space Agency's contribution to the project.

Out-of-this-world images from space

This composite image made from six frames shows the International Space Station, with a crew of seven aboard, in silhouette as it transits the sun at roughly 5 miles per second on April 23, 2021, as seen from Nottingham, Md. Aboard are: NASA astronauts Shannon Walker, Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Mark Vande Hei; Roscosmos cosmonauts Oleg Novitskiy, Pyotr Dubrov; and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Soichi Noguchi. Joining the crew aboard station the next day were Crew-2 mission crew members: Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur of NASA, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet. Photo by Bill Ingalls/NASA | License Photo

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