NASA’s Webb Telescope Launch Pushed Back: Here’s Why

by Jennifer Shea
NASA/Getty Images

NASA’s Webb Space Telescope is now set to launch on Christmas Eve. The space agency pushed the telescope’s launch date back after it noticed a communication issue between the observatory and the rocket.

The new telescope, whose predecessor was the Hubble Space Telescope, has already seen delays of several years, the Associated Press reports. The $10 billion telescope is waiting to launch aboard an Ariane rocket at a European Space Agency spaceport in French Guiana.

Specialists placed the telescope atop the rocket last Saturday. NASA had scheduled liftoff for Dec. 22. Then the communication problem cropped up.

Webb Telescope Has Multiple Goals

The Webb Telescope’s planned orbit is nearly 1 million miles from Earth. Once there, it will gather infrared light from the far corners of the cosmos, helping astronomers to collect data about far-flung cosmic structures and the beginnings of our universe. One of Webb’s major goals is to learn the properties of the first generation of stars to form in the universe.

It will also conduct detailed atmospheric studies of planets known as sub-Neptunes. Those are bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. And they orbit closer to their suns than Mercury orbits our Sun. They’re the most typical planet in our galaxy. But we don’t know much about their properties, or why our solar system doesn’t have them.

As if that weren’t enough, Webb will also probe quasars, which are distant but very active supersized black holes. Webb is highly sensitive to infrared light. That will help astronomers to see wavelengths from the quasars that have been stretched from ultraviolet and visible light into infrared light over the course of the light’s 13 billion-year journey. Astronomers want to look at the quasars themselves. They also want to peek at the stars in the surrounding galaxies and the galaxies that exist near the quasars.

What Are the Next Steps?

Webb has 12 total rocket thrusters that run on highly toxic propellants. (Hydrazine fuel or a mixture of hydrazine fuel and dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer.) Specialists wearing protective suits have already fueled the rocket thrusters up. They did that at the fueling section of the Ariane payload preparation facility in French Guiana.

Northrop Grumman built the spacecraft bus. It is now stocked with 369 pounds of hydrazine fuel and 292 pounds of dinitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. Arianespace and NASA teams have recently been working together to get Webb and the Ariane 5 rocket ready for launch. They’re scheduled to cart the full setup out of the Final Assembly Building and onto the launch pad two days before launch.

Excited for Webb’s rescheduled takeoff? You can watch the new countdown tick off the seconds to Christmas Eve here.