from the What's-another-month-or-two? dept.
It looks like the launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope has slipped again. It was slated to launch this coming Halloween but now it will be at mid-November at the earliest.
According to Ars Technica:
Last summer, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) set an October 31, 2021, launch date for the $10 billion telescope. The instrument, which is the largest science observatory ever placed into space, will launch on a European Ariane 5 rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana. Now, however, three considerations have pushed the launch into November or possibly early December.
[...] The launch campaign, which begins when the telescope arrives in French Guiana, requires 55 days. Asked whether this means that Webb will not launch until mid-November at the earliest, Zurbuchen said this assessment was correct.
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.
- NASA's James Webb Space Telescope Passes Crucial Launch-Simulation Tests
- NASA's Webb to Examine Objects in the Graveyard of the Solar System
- NASA Ominously Chooses Halloween 2021 to Launch Long-Delayed Space Telescope
- James Webb Space Telescope Will "Absolutely" Not Launch in March
- New Exoplanet Life Detection Method for James Webb Telescope
A new method, published in the journal Nature Astronomy, could allow NASA's James Webb telescope to detect oxygen molecules in exoplanet atmospheres (a potential indicator of life).
As they [collide, oxygen molecules] block out a specific part of the infrared spectrum, and the new telescope will be able to see that and give scientists a clue to the distant worlds' atmosphere.
[...] "Before our work, oxygen at similar levels as on Earth was thought to be undetectable with Webb," Thomas Fauchez, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and lead author of the study, said in a statement.
"This oxygen signal is known since the early 1980s from Earth's atmospheric studies but has never been studied for exoplanet research."
On the Earth, oxygen is a byproduct of photosynthesis, a process whereby living organisms convert sunlight into chemical energy. For this reason, scientists believe its presence could be an indicator of life on exoplanets.
Spotting oxygen on a planet might not be a guarantee that something lives there. Scientists have proposed alternative explanations that could create oxygen on exoplanets, and so it might not be a definitive indication that the world is alive.
Utilizing this collision induced absorption band at 6.4 μm, the scientists indicate that in some cases detection could occur within just a few transits.
Journal Reference: Sensitive probing of exoplanetary oxygen via mid-infrared collisional absorption$, Nature Astronomy (DOI: doi:10.1038/s41550-019-0977-7)
On Wednesday, the chief of NASA's science programs said the James Webb Space Telescope will not meet its current schedule of launching in March 2021.
"We will not launch in March," said Thomas Zurbuchen, the space agency's associate administrator for science. "Absolutely we will not launch in March. That is not in the cards right now. That's not because they did anything wrong. It's not anyone's fault or mismanagement."
Zurbuchen made these comments at a virtual meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board. He said the telescope was already cutting it close on its schedule before the COVID-19 pandemic struck the agency and that the virus had led to additional lost work time.
"This team has stayed on its toes and pushed this telescope forward at the maximum speed possible," he said. "But we've lost time. Instead of two shifts fully staffed, we could not do that for all the reasons that we talk about. Not everybody was available. There were positive cases here and there. And so, perhaps, we had only one shift."
NASA and the telescope's prime contractor, Northrop Grumman, are evaluating the schedule going forward. This will include an estimate of when operations can completely return to normal—Zurbuchen said telescope preparation and testing activities are nearing full staffing again—and set a new date for a launch. This schedule review should conclude in July.
"I'm very optimistic about this thing getting off the launch pad in 2021," Zurbuchen said. "Of course, there is still a lot of mountain to climb."
NASA hopes to launch the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope [(JWST)] from French Guiana on October 31, 2021, the agency announced today. Ongoing technical challenges and the covid-19 pandemic were cited as reasons for the latest delay to the project.
[...] The new date—October 31, 2021—represents a seven-month delay from the most recent launch target of March 2021 atop an Ariane 5 rocket.
[...] James Webb is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which is now 30 years old. The project is currently in the integration and testing phase of development, the final phase before it gets transported to French Guiana. Once in space, some million miles away from Earth, Webb will use its infrared telescope to observe some of the oldest galaxies in the universe, study star-forming nebulae, and even scan the atmospheres of distant exoplanets.
[...] At a NASA press conference earlier today, Gregory Robinson, JWST program director, said the decision to move the launch from March 2021 to October 2021 had to do with lingering development challenges and hardships imposed by the covid-19 pandemic. NASA, he said, was planning to re-evaluate the project's schedule margins prior to covid-19, but the pandemic forced the issue, resulting in yet another delay.
When asked to account for the seven-month delay, Robinson said three months had to do with covid-19 and two months had to do with existing technical issues, such as pending vibration testing, a review of the telescope's new sunshield, risk-reduction measures, among other outstanding tasks. The remaining two months were added as a buffer, said Robinson.
NASA's press release.
NASA's next big space telescope just took another step toward its highly anticipated 2021 launch.
The $9.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope has passed "environmental testing," a series of trials designed to simulate the considerable rigors of launch, NASA officials announced today (Oct. 6).
"The successful completion of our observatory environmental tests represent[s] a monumental milestone in the march to launch," Webb project manager Bill Ochs, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said today in a statement. "Environmental testing demonstrates Webb's ability to survive the rocket ride to space, which is the most violent portion of its trip to orbit approximately a million miles from Earth."
Beyond the orbit of Neptune, a diverse collection of thousands of dwarf planets and other relatively small objects dwells in a region called the Kuiper Belt. These often-pristine leftovers from our solar system's days of planet formation are called Kuiper Belt objects, or trans-Neptunian objects. NASA's upcoming James Webb Space Telescope will examine an assortment of these icy bodies in a series of programs called Guaranteed Time Observations shortly after its launch in 2021. The goal is to learn more about how our solar system formed.
"These are objects that are in the graveyard of solar system formation," explained Cornell University's Jonathan Lunine, a Webb Interdisciplinary Scientist who will use Webb to study some of these targets. "They're in a place where they could last for billions of years, and there aren't many places like that in our solar system. We'd love to know what they're like."
By studying these bodies, Lunine and his colleagues hope to learn about which ices were present in the early solar system. These are the coldest worlds to display geologic and atmospheric activity, so scientists are also interested in comparing them with the planets.
[...] The James Webb Space Telescope will be the world's premier space science observatory when it launches in 2021. Webb will solve mysteries in our solar system, look beyond to distant worlds around other stars, and probe the mysterious structures and origins of our universe and our place in it. Webb is an international program led by NASA with its partners, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Canadian Space Agency.
NASA and its partners working on the James Webb Space Telescope have completed their final tests of the giant observatory and are now preparing it for a trip to a South American spaceport for a launch later this year.
Conceived more than 30 years ago as a successor of the then new Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb will be the largest observatory ever to be put in orbit. It is designed to use its infrared eyes to peer further into the universe's history than ever before. With its 6.5-meter in diameter gold-plated mirror, the telescope will attempt to answer questions about the formation of first stars and galaxies out of the darkness of the early universe.
At 44 feet (13.2 meters) long and 14 feet (4.2 m) wide, the telescope is about the size of a large tractor-trailer truck, fitted with intricate sun shades that could cover a tennis court once unfolded.
The program faced many delays, not just due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but seems finally on track to start producing ground-breaking astronomical observations. The testing, which took place at the facilities of prime contractor Northrop Grumman in California, made sure that nothing would go wrong with the more than $10 billion spacecraft during launch and once in space.
"NASA's James Webb Space Telescope has reached a major turning point on its path toward launch with the completion of final observatory integration and testing," Gregory Robinson, Webb's program director at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. "We have a tremendously dedicated workforce who brought us to the finish line, and we are very excited to see that Webb is ready for launch and will soon be on that science journey."