back to article James Webb Space Telescope penciled in for launch this century. Yes, Dec 18, 2021

The long-awaited James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is set to launch – surprise, surprise – a little later than expected. Space agencies in America, Europe, and Canada said on Wednesday they're now aiming for December 18, 2021 rather than October. The huge $10bn instrument, said to be the most advanced of its kind, will be …

  1. UCAP Silver badge

    This thing better not explode on the pad

    As I recall the only launch failure ArianeSpace have had with a Ariane-5 has been the first one, and was basically due of some very sloppy software engineering work. With a record like that, the odds are pretty good that the James Webb Telescope will end up exactly where they want it.

    1. IHateWearingATie

      I seem to remember a mate's Dad had been working on one of the satellites in that famous Ariane failure for 10 years. Think its one of the few times he cried in public!

      1. UCAP Silver badge

        That would be the original Cluster mission. I knew some of the scientists involved on the mission, and they literally had tears in their eyes when the launch failed. However the subsequent Cluster 2 mission restored everyone's faith in ESA - used the flight spare and built two more, then tossed the whole lot up successfully.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Two failures

      The 14th launch was a first stage failure. This was the first lacuna of the 5ECA version which offers more oomph! to orbit. It was deliberately blown up after the cooling in the engine malfunctioned losing a comms sat and an experimental technology demonstrator.

      There have been three partial failures where the rocket didn't quite reach the intended orbit, but overall, Ariane V has been a spectacular success.

      Now I'd like to see ESA offer something that can compete with the Falcon in a completely changed market. The VI is a good jobs creation programme for the French missile industry and there is definitely a need for European security to have its own launcher - but to lose the entire commercial market to the US would be sad.

  2. Draco


    >> “Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of perseverance,” said Gregory Robinson, the telescope’s program director at NASA.

    Surely, he meant to say “Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of bureaucratic mismanagement, mission creep, and pork-barreling,” said Gregory Robinson, the telescope’s program director at NASA.

    I want good scientific tools as much as the next person, but ... 20x budget overrun and 14 years schedule slippage seem a little extravagant.

    1. 42656e4d203239 Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      “Webb is an exemplary mission that signifies the epitome of bureaucratic mismanagement, mission creep, and pork-barreling,”

      Yup - any large project in NASA is seen as a jobs making/pocket lining program for senators - cf. SLS, a program designed to maximise the voter returns in various senator states,,, sorry I mean a program designed to provide the next generation of safe, cheap, reliable launch systems for the futre exploitation of the local solar system....

      Just like the UK really, where many Government projects are "jobs for the boys" and "money for my chums"...

      1. Andy The Hat Silver badge

        Re: Really?

        I don't know what you mean "jobs for the boys" ... all the £34bn was shared with carefully selected colleagues and partners. In tests, none of the cash was traced to the Cayman Islands which I believe means the test and trace programme is a complete success.

    2. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: Really?

      Yes but, wait until you see the JWST floating out there with it's hermine fur-lined cape.

      Then you'll realize it was all worth it.

      1. Peter X

        Re: Really?

        My concern is that when projects are delayed as much as this, some of the original requirements might be hard/impossible to fulfil.

        For example, it may well be that the manufacturer for the punch cards have gone out of business? Or perhaps, launching a small child inside the telescope to load the punch cards at appropriate times is [big air-quotes] "no longer politically correct". I believe even replacing the child with a well trained chimpanzee is no longer acceptable!!

        All complete madness of-course! ;-)

        * To be fair, I've not actually looked at the specs for the JWST... [hand-waves]... but I'm sure ... something something...

        1. druck Silver badge

          Re: Really?

          My concern is that it will have taken so long to launch, the engineers who designed the scope will have passed away by the time they are needed to sort out any problems. Look at the miracles the Hubble engineers have managed to keep the ageing telescope going despite serious electronic failures 31 years after it launch.

    3. andy gibson

      Re: Really?

      It was also said that Webb oversaw a purge of LGBT people while working for the agency

      1. Rick Deckard

        Re: Really?

        Uranus won't be in its sights then....

  3. hup hup hoo

    I have pondered...

    Wonder what this could look like now with a Space X approach - put together what you can in 3 yeas, launch then launch the improved replacement 1-2 years later.

    With the low(ish) launch costs of a Falcon 9, one does wonder if anybody would be brave enough to try that with a future project. Heck, they could even give away the previous ones to consortia of universities if they agree to pick up the tab for operations.

    1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

      Re: I have pondered...

      I like what Space X are doing ..... but they are only improving on the science/engineering that NASA and the CCCP had to develop from scratch more than 50 years ago. I'm sure that if they didn't have those shoulders to stand upon then they wouldn't have been able to get to where they have in the time that it has taken.

      In the same way the delay and bloat of the JWST project can partially be explained by that fact that much of the project is actually new science/engineering that they have had to make up to get to where they are. I'm sure that if Space X (or NASA) were to do JWST2 (the sequel) then it would be much quicker and cheaper because the solutions to a lot of show stopping problems have already been developed.

      I'm not saying that all of the bloat/delay is because of this, or is justified. Only that you shouldn't make comparisons of apples and oranges.

      1. Paul Kinsler

        Re: new science/engineering that they have had to make up

        I went to a seminar on the JWT some years ago by someone from the project, which was somewhat technical and aimed at the level you might pick if talking to people in a university physics department (because that was where it was). At one point, there was an interesting debate between the speaker and an audience member with specific domain knowledge about the material they were using to make the mirrors. I think it was pretty clear that the questioner was saying "Y is significantly better than the X you chose"; the response might be (not entirely accurately) summarized as "well, X has many good properties as well, and we had to choose *something*".

        The JWT is not some sort of retail appliance; it's a cutting edge scientific instrument, designed on the basis that over the project timescale, unsolved problems that experts think can be solved, will actually be solved ... so that various key components can be built to specification.

        The scale of the cost blowout is pretty astonishing, though; not the least because the project hasn't been canned some time back because of it.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: new science/engineering that they have had to make up

          JWT was, even among NASA projects, driven by national politics and pork barreling.

          1. Paul Kinsler

            Re: : driven by national politics and pork barreling.

            I expect this is sort of true and not-true at the same time.

            NASA and the various interested scientists are probably mostly driven by the desire to have a scientifically useful, and cutting edge space telescope, and to finally get to see and use the observation data it can provide; i.e. they are not driven by politics and pork. However, the *political* support for the funding and execution of the project outside of NASA/science very plausibly is.

            Of course if you are stuck with a level of cynical politics and pork driving some fraction of spending, having those resources "dubiously" directed into science is arguably better than having them dubiously directed into (e.g.) weapons research or manufacture.

            1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

              Re: : driven by national politics and pork barreling.

              My personal experience of JWST.

              In the late 90s when it was proposed it was going to be a 6.5m ligthweigth conventional mirror, built by our partners at Arizona's mirror lab, and launched on an Ariane5 with a power-bulge fairing.

              It was later (post Iraq v2) decided that it needed to be launched on a freedom rocket (as opposed to a Cheese Eating Surrender Monkey rocket) and so was redesigned to have the insane folding mechanism.

              This took so long and cost so much Nasa needed external partners - which meant ESA contributed the C.E.S.M rocket launch among other bits.

      2. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: I have pondered...

        In the same way that NASA and the CCCP built on the good work of Newton and Galileo amongst *many* others.

        That's how science and engineering work.

        SpaceX have now flown a full flow staged combustion engine, and are planning on a combustion pressure circa 300 bar (as opposed to ~70 for the mighty F1).

        They also seem to be in the habit of landing boosters and flying them again, and again, and again.

        So yes, they are standing on the shoulders of giants, who were in turn standing on the shoulders of earlier giants... to misquote Mr Pratchett: It's giants all the way down.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: I have pondered...

          More importantly SpaceX prices changed the whole model.

          With a shuttle launch costing $1Bn and booked years in advance - you had to make sure the payload couldn't fail, which meant decades and $Bn of testing which meant expensive one-off once-per-career missions.

          With a $50M commercial launch available any week of the year, it suddenly makes sense to sense to mass produce a standard telescope vehicle and launch $100M missions every year with updated instruments.

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: I have pondered...

            Surely the SpaceX model wouldn't be to launch one great big telescope with a great big mirror, their solution would be to launch 10,000 little ones, perhaps each just 1M across just teamed up to give you the light gathering area of a 100M dish.

            1. Anonymous Coward

              Re: I have pondered...

              Does not work as a telescope unless you can position all the little ones well within a wavelength of the light you care about. For JWST that means 600nm. Also you need to keep all of them cool.

          2. John Robson Silver badge

            Re: I have pondered...

            The problem with "standard telescope vehicle" is that the different bands of radiation you wish to detect require rather different vehicles. JWST is for instance going to be hiding behind a multilayered sun shield to keep itself cool enough to operate, not something Hubble has an issue with.

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "This thing better not explode on the pad"

    Or in the air, or anywhere, really.

    I really hope all will go well until launch - whenever that ends up being.

    We need a fingers crossed icon.

    1. Joe W Silver badge

      Re: "This thing better not explode on the pad"

      Yup. One of my mate's satellites(*) got blown up by the Russians....

      (to be fair: space flight, even unmanned, is not that easy)

      (*)ok, bigger project, not in a leading role, but you really get attached to those missions

  5. Tom 7

    I'm going to pretend this has been cancelled.

    Until the first images return. I dont think I've got enough hope left to try and follow its progress from now on.

  6. adam 40 Silver badge

    I confidently predict

    That a butcher's at the same patches of sky imaged by Hubble in the Ultra Deep Field snaps will reveal a factor of 5 more galaxies to be seen.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: I confidently predict

      Probably not. JWST doesn't necessarily see fainter objects than HST - it's design aim is to see older object than Hubble. This is why it is infrared - these objects have red-shifted out of the visible.

      But the universe isn't all that old and so there might not be all that many more very early universe galaxies in the HDF than the early galaxies seen by Hubble.

  7. Anonymous Coward

    Despite . . .

    Despite the JWST delays. Despite the launch using an obsolete (and the literal last of its kind) Ariane-5. Despite having to travel by sea because the bridges between the airport and the launch facility can't support its weight. Despite the secrecy and navy escort on the voyage to protect against pirates. And, of course, despite the pandemic. I still have hope.

    May this star-crossed mission become a star mission.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Despite . . .

      Wait for the insanely complicated unfolding mechanism a million km away in space

  8. Anonymous Coward


    Everyone makes so much noise about cost. JWST cost $10 billion 2021 dollars. HST cost ... $9.31 billion 2020 dollars, and suspect that does not include servicing missions. Suspect real problem with cost balloon is that initial estimates were absurdly optimistic: why would a person think they could make telescope which solves harder problems (IR / cooling, L2 / no possibility of servicing) than HST for small fraction of what it cost?

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