back to article NASA delays James Webb Space Telescope launch date by at least seven months

NASA has announed a seven-month delay to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the thirty-year-old Hubble Space Telescope. The delays are in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which meant fewer staff were able to work on the ‘scope and when they did work progress was slowed by “augmented safety …

  1. Potemkine!

    IIRC, when the project started in 1997, the launch was scheduled for 2007. 13 years later a new delay occurs... I pity the project manager.

    1. Ryan 7

      Such a Project Manager will have been in reliable employment for a great deal of time...!

    2. Zolko

      I pity the project manager.

      which one ? You don't seriously think that the PM hasn't been sacked (or quit) several times already ?

      1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

        Those responsible for sacking the people who have just been sacked have been sacked.

      2. maffski

        You don't seriously think that the PM hasn't been sacked (or quit) several times already ?

        It's government funding. The PM(s) will have been promoted.

    3. Aleph0

      Obligatory XKCD

      1. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

        Re: Obligatory XKCD


        "Since delays should get less likely closer to the launch, most astronomers in 2018 believed the expansion of the schedule was slowing, but by early 2020 new measurements indicated that it was actually accelerating."

        And that was (evidently) written in 2018.

        1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

          Re: Obligatory XKCD

          "new measurements indicated that it was actually accelerating."

          Dark energy causing the acceleration of expansion. If they don't get the JWST launched pretty soon, most of the universe will have moved beyond the boundaries of the observable universe. And there will be nothing left for it to look at.

  2. Giles C Bronze badge

    Having seen how clean rooms have to be for satellite builds (especially telescope mirrors) I am surprised that the virus has slowed things down. Surely once the machine is in the clean testing lab all the functional tests can be run from anywhere as it is just sending commands to the machine, or in the vibration tests shaking it a bit...

    Sounds like a good excuse to me.

    1. UCAP

      Clean-rooms are designed to filter out dust; they are not designed to filter out viruses (which are generally much smaller than dust particles). However that won't be the issue here; the actual issue is that the guys who work in the clean rooms and build the satellites often work closely together (i.e. much less than 2m); putting social distancing rules into effect is bound to slow things down since only 1 or 2 people will be able to work on the satellite at a time.

      1. Rol Silver badge

        "Jam roly-poly with custard? Strawberry Jelly and Neapolitan Ice-cream? What's going on with the staff canteen menu?"

        "Yeah, been a few changes mate"

        "Mate? Mate! Who are you!?"

        "I'm Doug, Uncle Bob's nephew. Nice to meet you"..."Uncle Doug can I have some more ice-cream?"

        "What? And who's that?"

        "That's Emily, she's Uncle Bob's granddaughter"

        "And them who are just strolling in to this private canteen like they work here?"

        "Err, well, some of them are my kids, and Uncle Bob's and Aunty Sue's,and they do work here"

        "As what?"

        "Well, the eager hands needed to get things rolling along. You see we all share a social bubble and therefore are the best qualified to get stuck in, down and dirty, and rubbing shoulders like"

        "So why is the project still delayed?"

        "Have you ever tried working alongside family?"

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        "social distancing"

        The 1-2m social distancing is based on people not taking other precautions. Once you are geared up to work in a clean room, the social distancing thing is almost moot, just make sure proper masks are part of the gear.

    2. vtcodger Silver badge

      I think the device is currently in California. The logistics of getting 6.5 tonnes of extremely delicate machinery from there to the French Guiana launch site while managing the effort from Maryland would be daunting under "normal" circumstances. I can well believe that Covid-19 related quarantines and resource availability problems might well add some additional delays. After all, when you're 2000% over budget and 13 years late, what difference do a few more months make?

      I sure hope that it makes it safely to its L2 station and works properly when it gets there.

    3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Neither you nor I are rocket scientists.

      This is the one thing NASA is still good for : ensuring proper procedures and the safety of the equipment. If the engineers say a delay is necessary, then it is. We have no idea of all the things that have to go exactly right to ensure a good launch - and even then, it can all go boom in a millisecond.

      On a separate point : Hubble is 30 years old already ?

      Dear God. Thanks for the additional coating of age.

      I wonder if I'll be able to read that about the James Webb one day.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        >ensuring proper procedures and the safety of the equipment.

        Well 1 out of 2 ain't bad.

        On Hubble they had 50 quality engineers onsite checking PE's procedures - but none looking at the mirror

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          RE: but none looking at the mirror

          No they did test the mirror.

          It was the test jig that was the problem. Nobody realized it was a bit off so they ground the mirror wrong.

          But I will have to give it to you that they should have tested it again when they were all done to make sure it was all right. But maybe they did with the same bad tester.

          1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

            Re: RE: but none looking at the mirror

            Perkin-Elmer tested the mirror, NASA accepted the suppliers reports without any of their own tests.

            Famously they did a huge amount of verification of PE's testing procedue but no verification of the test

            1. Ian Johnston Silver badge

              Re: RE: but none looking at the mirror

              Famously they did a huge amount of verification of PE's testing procedue but no verification of the test

              Sounds suspiciously ISO9001-like.

        2. Jaybus

          And they were able to fix Hubble in low Earth orbit with a space shuttle mission. Webb is going to L2. Granted, that is the best location for deep space observation, but is some 1.5 million km from Earth. Is a manned mission to L2 even feasible in the near future if something does go wrong post launch?

          1. tfb Silver badge

            It's not. I suspect this may be one of the reasons it has take so long: it has to be right.

      2. Afernie


        "If the engineers say a delay is necessary, then it is. "

        This. I'm looking forward to seeing what the JWT can do, but it will reveal precisely no secrets of the universe if gets instantly reconfigured on the launchpad or is reduced to its constituent elements by an "unscheduled re-entry".

        I'm happy to wait.

      3. tfb Silver badge


        I wonder if I'll be able to read that about the James Webb one day.

        Probably you won't. It can't be serviced really as it will be too far away, so once it runs out of consumables or once enough bits go wrong it's dead, unlike Hubble which was designed to be serviced. They're aiming for ten years I think and they might get much mote of course. And maybe in ten years we will be able to service it.

        Also it won't make the amazing pictures that Hubble does I think: they will be scientifically more useful now but visually less impressive.

      4. DropBear

        Sure thing, and if the Draco thruster RUD would have happened to NASA they would have deemed that proper procedures absolutely require no further Dragon flights within this century, until the very last one of the their bureaucrats catches up filing their last report to the relevant committee. Because, clearly, you either work to three hundred nines or have no business flying stuff.

  3. Pete 2

    2021 a space impossibility

    The 25th anniversary of when the project started.

    Excellent work NASA and by "excellent" I mean being able to stretch a $500million project out to $10 billion

    If there was a Nobel Prize for project management, they would undoubtedly win. Although in the same vein, those Nobels would also be running decades late and massively over budget, too.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: 2021 a space impossibility

      The telescope is named after a NASA administrator, so far it's proving a great monument to him.

      It's not clear that launching it was ever the intention

  4. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

    Cost Plus

    Is this another NASA wonderful Cost-Plus contract?

  5. Ryan 7

    This is the way.

  6. mattje

    I'm gonna give them the benefit of the doubt - i heard this rocket stuff is kinda hard compared to the bean-counting software that i work on.

    I am disappointed though - really looking forward to how much this could move the dial in our exoplanet search.

    Fingers crossed for October!

  7. Tom 7 Silver badge

    The only thing that 8k TV will be of any use for.

    I cant wait - though I can wait to buy the TV/Monitor whatever thingy to look at the images it gets. Something with venta black/supernova levels of contrast.

  8. Binraider

    While the launch of any spacecraft has the shadow of boom looming over it, one cannot help but think that with this one it is even more so than normal. There is something to be said for assembly of components on-orbit carried on a number of smaller launches rather than an all-eggs-in-one basket terrorfest that will be the eventual launch of the Webb telescope. I don't believe in luck so I shall wish the engineers and technicians on the ground intelligence that they can get away with it.

    1. Jon 37

      The problem with splitting a satellite in pieces across multiple launchers, is that if any one of them goes boom then you don't get your satellite. Unless you double up every functional element and ensure that the loss of any one piece isn't critical. But in that case, your paying for double the design & manufacturing & testing costs, and more than double the launch mass, which is expensive. You also have the extra work and risks of docking the parts in orbit.

      If you have a deadline, then it's faster simpler and cheaper to just build two identical satellites, and plan to launch the second if the first one goes boom. You'd be really unlucky to have them both go boom.

      If you're doing science, it's faster better and cheaper to just build one satellite. If it goes boom, you apply for funding to build another one, then build and launch it. The delay is annoying, but doesn't actually cause real problems.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Ironically that is sort-of what's happening with JWST

        Original plan was for a 6.5M single mirror launched on an Ariane5 with a specially widened fairing.

        But the Great American Space Observatory couldn't be launched on a CESM rocket

        So an insanely complex folding mirror design was created which would fit on an Atlas

        This design was so late and expensive they needed CESM partners who contributed in the form of a free Ariane5 launch

  9. Adventurer

    Hubble revisited

    Can we expect another Hubble Servicing mission in the meantime?

    1. Jon 37

      Re: Hubble revisited


      The US has retired the shuttles, so there's no way to get astronauts up there for on-orbit modifications, with the robot arm and other equipment they'd need.

      And robotic technology isn't up to unscrewing hatches and pulling equipment out, yet. At least not reliably enough to risk doing it in space with an irreplaceable satellite.

      There does need to be one more robotic mission to Hubble, to attach thrusters to deorbit the satellite at the end of its life. The last manned servicing missing attached some mounting points for the thrusters to be attached to. But that's not really a Hubble servicing mission like any of the previous ones, it's a cleaning-up-space-junk mission.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. Tom 7 Silver badge

        Re: Hubble revisited

        I wonder if the mirror would survive re-entry. It would make an interesting flying red hot saucer!

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Hubble revisited

          Hubble's mirror and a big chunk of the bus sized main body will survive rentry and you really wouldn't want it to land on you.

          There was a plan to use the Shuttle to either boost it to a parking orbit or add a motor to allow a controlled rentry - but the shuttle got canned before that could happen.

          Current plan is to point out that it is in an orbit which barely touches florida and so can't land on anybody imortant

        2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Hubble revisited

          "I wonder if the mirror would survive re-entry. It would make an interesting flying red hot saucer!"

          The worlds biggest solar wok?

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maybe there are similar satellites to the JWST already in orbit.

    The KH-11 Kennen satellites (The first one was launched in 1976) looked amazing similar to the Hubble telescope launched in 1990 - although to be fair there are very few telescope designs, typically a large tube with a few mirrors, and one or more image sensors. At least nine KH-11 satellites were launched (one failed to orbit), before the Hubble telescope, and eight more KH-11's after the HST was launched.

    Kind of makes you wonder if the American NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) have not already launched a few IR satellites similar to the JWST with a slightly shorter focal length pointing at earth.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Maybe there are similar satellites to the JWST already in orbit.


    2. tfb Silver badge

      Re: Maybe there are similar satellites to the JWST already in orbit.

      There's no purpose: the atmosphere is pretty opaque at those wavelengths.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    hd ready

    what sort of telemetry would have been onboard for 2007. 720p video era? early broadband transmission speeds? At least it should be at least 8k era now and use less power. And hopefully transmit data faster.

    Unless they are sticking to the original spec due to some old duffer calling the shots and cast iron contracts.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: hd ready

      Probably Bittorrent

  12. 89724102172714182892114I7551670349743096734346773478647892349863592355648544996312855148587659264921 Bronze badge

    It would be a terrible pity, and a loss to science, if the James Webb turned out to be yet another example of the growing trend of government projects which are too profitable for the contractors to suceed

    1. Tom 7 Silver badge

      Its not that its too profitable - the Soviet Union invented a thing called the MBA to destroy capitalism and its doing a better job than Covid-19.

  13. Sanguma Bronze badge


    Wasn't there supposed to be some US spy satellites that weren't needed by the end of the Cold War, so they got donated to NASA? I read that a while back, somewhere, and have been waiting eagerly for news of their launch and the results to come flooding in, but no, nothing seems to have happened.

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