NASA has been working on the James Webb Space Telescope for 20 years, and there have been numerous delays. The marvel of astronomical technology is currently preparing for launch, but NASA says we’ll have to wait just a bit longer. Following a minor “incident,” NASA has pushed the launch of Webb back by four days. That will give the team time to check for damage one last time before launch.
The Webb telescope will serve as the successor to Hubble, which has survived long past its intended design life. With the aging telescope on the verge of failure on an almost weekly basis, the need for Webb has never been greater. Of course, it was supposed to be in operation years ago, but building the most powerful space-based observatory in human history is no simple feat.
Several weeks ago, Webb made its journey from the US to French Guiana, where NASA’s European partners will launch the spacecraft aboard an Ariane 5 rocket. However, NASA says that an “incident” occurred while technicians were mounting the telescope to the launch vehicle adapter, which mates the observatory to the upper rocket stage. According to NASA’s initial report, a clamp band used to secure the telescope to the adapter was accidentally released. This “caused a vibration throughout the observatory.”
Webb is going to have to cope with intense vibration during launch, but there’s no reason to take any chances here. Webb’s total price tag is hovering around $10 billion, but that’s nothing compared to the time it took to design and build, making it the very definition of “irreplaceable.” NASA has convened an anomaly review board that will investigate the incident and conduct additional testing to ensure the observatory is still in perfect working order. Once it’s deployed, Webb will be too far away for any maintenance missions.
Hopefully, we’ll hear in the coming days that the telescope is fine, and the four-day pause will be the last delay before Webb finally leaves Earth behind. When it’s finally operational, Webb will be able to peer at more distant, dimmer objects than any other instrument in the world from its vantage beyond the orbit of the moon. It could help us understand the dawn of the universe, the life and death of stars, and even help study exoplanets that could harbor life. We just need to get it into space in one piece.