NASA to launch James Webb Space Telescope on December 18th

The James Webb Space Telescope passed its final ground-based testing in August, and NASA reported that it was being prepared for shipping to its launch location in Kourou, French Guiana. The $10 billion telescope’s long-awaited launch date has finally been set: December 18, 2021.

NASA, the European Space Agency, and the launch provider, Arianespace, announced the date on Wednesday. An Ariane 5 rocket will launch the space telescope into space.

It is NASA’s most expensive scientific instrument ever but launching on a European rocket because the European Space Agency is handling the launch for NASA in return for a share of the infrared telescope’s observation time. James Webb Space Telescope will observe wavelengths of light longer than those observed by the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing the new instrument to glimpse the Universe’s earliest galaxies.

Webb’s development has been delayed by a slew of technical issues, much to the dismay of scientists and policymakers, resulting in massive cost overruns. Some of this is understandable, given that the telescope’s 20-meter length requires 50 large deployments and 178 big release mechanisms in deep space.

The instrument will not function unless all of these systems are operational. The telescope is located near a Sun-Earth LaGrange point 1.5 million kilometers from Earth or four times the distance to the Moon, and there are no straightforward ways to serve it.

NASA to launch James Webb Space Telescope on December 18th
Webb’s sun shield

While NASA tried to resolve the remaining concerns with Webb this summer, the European Space Agency and Arianespace experienced challenges with its Ariane 5 rocket. The Ariane 5, a venerable rocket that has been in service for over 25 years, was grounded from August 2020 to July 2021 due to a payload fairing issue.

However, Arianespace officials claim that the fairing problem has been identified and corrected through a redesign, and also that the rocket launched successfully on July 30, 2021.

Before the Webb flight, the Ariane 5 rocket has one more mission scheduled to carry two commercial satellites on October 15. If the next flight of the Ariane rocket goes as planned, Arianespace will be ready for the Webb telescope.

“ESA is proud that Webb will launch from Europe’s Spaceport on an Ariane 5 rocket specially adapted for this mission,” says the ESA Director of Space Transportation Daniel Neuenschwander in a press release.

“We’re on schedule, the spaceport is busy preparing for the arrival of this extraordinary cargo, and the Ariane 5 components for this launch are coming together. We are absolutely dedicated to the success of this once-in-a-generation project, as are all Webb partners.”

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