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NASA delays launch of the world’s most powerful space telescope, again

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James Webb now looking at a spring 2019 launch

A rendering of the James Webb Space Telescope completely unfurled in space.
Image: NASA

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has experienced another delay. The telescope will now launch between March and June of 2019, instead of the previously planned launch of October 2018. The space agency made the announcement after a new scheduled assessment, noting that the delay was due to the component integration and testing taking longer than expected.

The delay is at least partly due to the size and complexity of the Webb spacecraft and sunshield, the agency said. “The installation of more than 100 sunshield membrane release devices, factoring in lessons learned from earlier testing, like longer time spans for vibration testing, has meant the integration and testing process is just taking longer,” said Eric Smith, program director for the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA has an agreement with the European Space Agency (ESA) to provide a one year window into a desired launch date. NASA’s assessment of the Webb telescope analyzed the spacecraft’s launch preparedness and took into account the remaining tasks that need to be finished, the performance rates of integrating elements of Webb, and understanding the results from environmental testing of the telescope and other parts of the ship.

“The change in launch timing is not indicative of hardware or technical performance concerns,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. NASA says testing of Webb’s telescope and instruments remains on schedule and are meeting the required performance levels. NASA also notes that the change in date of the launch won’t affect any of the planned observations and that the program’s budget can accommodate the change in date.

When it launches, Webb will be capable of seeing deep into space and observe galaxies formed just after the Big Bang through infrared. It will also be the largest and most powerful space telescope ever built — measuring 21-feet in diameter — and will be used by thousands of astronomers across the globe. "Considering the investment NASA has made, and the good performance to date, we want to proceed very systemmatically through these tests to be ready for a Spring 2019 launch," Smith said.