The launch of the long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope has been delayed by NASA over issues relating to the coronavirus pandemic.

Previously the space-based observatory, which is designed to succeed Hubble, was intended to launch in March 2021. However, NASA has now delayed its launch until a target date of 31 October 2021.

Once launched, the James Webb Space Telescope will provide unprecedented observation capabilities, including longer wavelength coverage than Hubble, greater infrared capabilities and a higher resolution. It will enable cosmologists and astronomers to observe previously unseen events, such as the formation of the first galaxies in the universe.

“Webb is designed to build upon the incredible legacies of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, by observing the infrared universe and exploring every phase of cosmic history,” said Eric Smith, NASA Webb’s program scientist.

“The observatory will detect light from the first generation of galaxies that formed in the early universe after the big bang and study the atmospheres of nearby exoplanets for possible signs of habitability.”

Featuring a 6.5m primary mirror, made up of 1.3m hexagonal gold-plated beryllium segments, it is currently under testing at Northrop Grumman, NASA’s main commercial partner on the project.

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James Webb Space Telescope launch delayed, but team perseveres

The James Webb Space Telescope had been making good progress towards launch prior to the coronavirus outbreak and was due for an assessment in April to determine if lift-off would need to be delayed. And it is quite possible that it would have been on-schedule had the pandemic not occurred.

However, Covid-19 and its related lockdowns have been an unforeseen and immensely challenging factor in ongoing work, requiring a reduction in on-site personnel and other increased safety precautions.

“The perseverance and innovation of the entire Webb Telescope team has enabled us to work through challenging situations we could not have foreseen on our path to launch this unprecedented mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Notably, however, NASA does not anticipate that the delayed launch will require the James Webb Space Telescope to receive addition funding beyond the $8.8bn cap on development costs that is already in place.

“Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule without requiring additional funds,” said Gregory Robinson, NASA Webb program director.

“Although efficiency has been affected and there are challenges ahead, we have retired significant risk through the achievements and good schedule performance over the past year. After resuming full operations to prepare for upcoming final observatory system-level environmental testing this summer, major progress continues towards preparing this highly complex observatory for launch.”

Despite the delays, NASA remains highly optimistic about the landmark project.

“Webb is the world’s most complex space observatory, and our top science priority, and we’ve worked hard to keep progress moving during the pandemic,” added Zurbuchen.

“The team continues to be focused on reaching milestones and arriving at the technical solutions that will see us through to this new launch date next year.”

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