The James Webb Space Telescope, humanity’s next big space-bound eye on the cosmos, has a new launch date of December 18th, NASA announced on Wednesday. It’s the latest among dozens of other delays for a telescope that was originally planned to go to space as early as 2007.
The $8.8 billion observatory, named after NASA’s second administrator, is a tennis court-sized successor to NASA’s famed Hubble telescope. Its 18 hexagonal gold-plated mirrors will allow the spacecraft to view distant planets and the far reaches of the universe with a level of detail that far surpasses Hubble’s capabilities.
Astronomers have been looking forward to the telescope’s launch for years, but its development has been set back by years of delays, development challenges, and cost overruns. NASA and Northrop Grumman, the telescope’s prime contractor, initially set a $1 billion budget for James Webb and a launch date for sometime in 2007. By 2011, the launch date had slipped to 2018, but that was pushed ever further, with development accidents driving up costs. Early last year, NASA’s inspector general foresaw delays due to a handful of technical challenges. And the pandemic added more delays last year, pushing the launch date to October 31st.
The latest delay had nothing to do with the telescope. The Ariane 5 rocket James Webb will launch on was effectively grounded for nearly a year due to problems with its payload fairings that were detected in two separate commercial missions in 2020. The rocket successfully launched a batch of satellites in July. In the same month, the European Space Agency — NASA’s partner on the telescope — signed off on James Webb’s new launch plan in a key review that showed “positive results” during technical evaluations, the agency said at the time.
NASA said the new date was set in consultation with Arianespace, the French company whose Ariane 5 rocket will send James Webb to space from a launch site in Kourou, French Guiana managed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The observatory, a joint project between NASA, ESA, and the Canadian space agency, wrapped up final tests late last month, and now it’s undergoing shipment operations. Engineers will enclose the spacecraft in a custom (and very expensive) shipping container before it’s sent to Kourou.
While it finally has a new launch date to space, the exact timing of when the spacecraft sets sail to South America is still being kept under wraps as a security precaution.