NASA, ESA target 18 December for long-awaited James Webb launch

An artist’s impression of the James Webb Space Telescope with its five-layer sunshade and mirrors fully deployed in space. Image: NASA GSFC/CIL/Adriana Manrique Gutierrez

NASA, the European Space Agency and Arianespace say they’re now targeting December 18 for launch of the James Web Space Telescope, the $9.7 billion successor to the ageing Hubble Space Telescope.

Prime contractor Northrop Grumman recently completed final testing and is preparing to the new telescope for shipment from Los Angeles to ESA’s Kourou launch site in Kourou, French Guiana. Major components of the Ariane 5 rocket that will boost the telescope into space are already on site at Kourou.

The December 18 target date is contingent on a successful Ariane 5 launch in mid to late October, verifying corrective actions to fix a recent payload fairing issue.

Once launched, it will take Webb about 25 days to reach its orbital parking place a million miles from Earth. Over the Christmas-New Year holiday season, the telescope’s tennis court-size sunshade will deploy, segments of its primary mirror will unfold and lock into place and the tripod supporting its secondary mirror will be erected.

Once those and other critical deployments take place, engineers will spend several months commissioning the observatory, calibrating its instruments and preparing it for the start of science operations later next year.

“Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of perseverance,” said Gregory Robinson, Webb program director at NASA Headquarters. “I am inspired by our dedicated team and our global partnerships that have made this incredible endeavour possible. Together, we’ve overcome technical obstacles along the way as well as challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.