James Webb space telescope incident

Just released from Ars Technica, the James Webb space telescope’s “no earlier than” launch date will slip from December 18 to at least December 22 after an “incident” occurred during processing operations at the launch site in Kourou, French Guiana.

“Technicians were preparing to attach Webb to the launch vehicle adapter, which is used to integrate the observatory with the upper stage of the Ariane 5 rocket,” NASA said in a blog post. “A sudden, unplanned release of a clamp band—which secures Webb to the launch vehicle adapter—caused a vibration throughout the observatory.”

Let’s be honest, words like “incident,” “sudden,” and “vibration” are not the kinds of expressions one wants to hear about the handling of a delicate and virtually irreplaceable instrument like the Webb telescope.

However, NASA, the European Space Agency, and the rocket’s operator, Arianespace, have a plan for moving forward.

NASA is leading an anomaly review board to investigate and conduct additional testing to determine with certainty that the incident did not damage any part of the telescope. Completion of the testing is targeted for the end of this week, when NASA will provide an update.

Building Webb has been difficult because its 6.5-meter mirror needs to unfurl itself once it reaches an orbit about 1.5 million kilometers (about 1 million miles) from Earth. This is an exceedingly complex process, and there are more than 300 single points of failure aboard the observatory. NASA has had a difficult time testing them all on Earth in conditions that mimic the temperatures, pressure, and microgravity of deep space.

Webb will not orbit the earth (as the Hubble Space Telescope does); it will orbit the sun. From NASA, here is a 20-second animation showing Webb’s path around the sun.

This placement gives Webb the necessary protection from heat and light, as the telescope interprets primarily infrared radiation. The location also allows continuous communications with Webb through the Deep Space Network (DSN) using three large antennas on the ground located in Australia, Spain, and California.

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