NASA delays the James Webb Space Telescope launch again

As things stand, it'll take place a few weeks after the previous planned date of October 31st.

NASA/Chris Gunn

NASA had been working toward an October 31st launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope, but it's having to delay the science observatory's trip into space once again. Thankfully, the launch might take place just a few weeks later, in November or early December. A rescheduled date is unlikely to be confirmed until later this summer or perhaps in the fall.

There are several factors that are key to determining a new launch date, according to Ars Technica. The telescope's director for launch services Beatriz Romero told reporters that shipping Webb and the readiness of the rocket and spaceport were all important considerations.

Following extensive testing, NASA and the primary contractor on the project, Northrop Grumman, are edging closer to packing up the telescope into a shipping container, according to the agency's chief of science Thomas Zurbuchen. That will likely happen towards the end of August. After Webb arrives at the spaceport in French Guyana, it will take 55 days to prepare it for launch. That means the launch window will be mid-November at the earliest.

There's also the issue of the Ariane 5 rocket that's scheduled to transport Webb away from terra firma. It has been grounded since last August because of an issue with the payload fairing. Launch provider Arianespace says the problem has been addressed with a redesign. Tests are scheduled for July and August to ensure the issue has been truly resolved before the Webb launch, but there's always the possibility of delays with those too.

Meanwhile, the impact of COVID-19 has affected operations at the spaceport. Vaccines are not yet broadly available in French Guyana, as Ars Technica notes. Activity could be further hampered by a significant spread of the coronavirus.

A delay of a few weeks is not much, considering the initial launch timeframe was around 2007. Still, there are reasons for optimism. Pushing back the launch by weeks rather than months or years is an indication that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter for the successor to Hubble.