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The James Webb Space Telescope, a project dating back to the late 1900s, may launch this very century

After years of delays, the James Webb Space Telescope may actually launch this year, having passed a “final mission analysis review,” we’re told.

Work began on the space telescope, once called the Next Generation Space Telescope (NGST), in 1996 with a planned launch date of 2007. That slipped almost immediately due to budget cuts and technological problems. An influx of funding helped get it closer on track, though the project just has this darn habit of blowing past deadlines, even to this day.

In the past year, the mission to launch the $10bn space observatory, the most advanced of its kind, has suffered multiple setbacks amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As the novel coronavirus spread around the world, work on the telescope was paused as scientists and engineers at NASA were sent home under shelter-in-place orders.

At one point, the American space agency set a launch date of October 31 this year, though its associate administrator for the science mission directorate Thomas Zurbuchen told a hearing last month it was unlikely the project would be ready by then. There were, apparently, issues with the Ariane 5, the rocket built by Arianespace for the European Space Agency that’s tasked with sending the instrument up into the heavens.

Whatever those gremlins were, they’ve been squashed, according to the Canadian Space Agency. “The international James Webb Space Telescope mission has successfully passed the final mission analysis review for its launch on an Ariane 5 rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana,” the body said in a statement this week.

“This major milestone, carried out by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Webb launch service provider Arianespace, confirms that the Ariane 5 rocket, the Webb spacecraft and the flight plan are set for launch,” it added. “It also specifically provides the final confirmation that all aspects of the launch vehicle and spacecraft are fully compatible.”

The Canadians built the Fine Guidance Sensor and the Near-Infrared Imager and Slitless Spectrograph for the telescope to help it focus on particularly interesting objects, such as exoplanets and galaxies, and measure their light. NASA, meanwhile, constructed the overall tennis-court-sized machine and will manage its operations.

It’s not clear exactly when Hubble’s successor will fly into space. The Europeans said they’re still working toward the Halloween launch date.

“Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Webb’s partners are working towards the launch readiness date of 31 October 2021. The precise launch date following 31 October depends on the spaceport’s launch schedule and will be finalised closer to the launch readiness date,” the Euro boffins said on Wednesday. ®


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