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NASA Pushes Back Launch Date On Webb Space Telescope, Citing COVID-19

In 2017, technicians lift the mirror assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane inside a clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.
In 2017, technicians lift the mirror assembly of the James Webb Space Telescope using a crane inside a clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, the long-awaited — and long-delayed — successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, has been pushed back yet another seven months, NASA said Thursday citing, in part, delays from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The nearly $10 billion project, which scientists hope will see back to the time when the first galaxies were formed following the Big Bang, had been scheduled to launch next March from French Guiana atop an Ariane 5 rocket, but the space agency said it is now aiming for an Oct. 31, 2021, launch date.

"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," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a statement. "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."

NASA said disruption to work shifts caused by COVID-19 work-from-home orders and other technical challenges had combined to push back the scheduled launch.

The telescope has experienced numerous delays and cost overruns since the project first went into development in 1996. Initial estimates were that it would cost between $1 billion and $3.5 billion with a possible launch in 2007.

In January, after years of setbacks and ballooning costs, a Government Accountability Office report concluded that the project's estimated cost was $9.7 billion, an increase of 95%. At the time, the GAO gave NASA a low probability of meeting its then-March 2021 launch date.

Despite the latest delay, NASA's Webb program director, Gregory Robinson, said it would be able to stay within its development cost cap.

"Based on current projections, the program expects to complete the remaining work within the new schedule without requiring additional funds," Robinson said. "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."

Built by Northrup Grumman and Ball Aerospace, Webb — named after the NASA administrator who was instrumental in overseeing the agency's Apollo moon program — boasts a 6.5-meter (21-foot) segmented mirror, considerably larger and more sensitive than Hubble's 2.4 meter (7.9-foot) primary mirror.

Unlike Hubble, which was placed in low-Earth orbit, the Webb Space Telescope will be parked at a position known as Lagrange Point 2 (L2), keeping the Earth between it and the sun. Along with a built-in heat shield, Webb's position in space is meant to help protect the spacecraft's instruments for detecting infrared light from the intense heat of the sun.

Also unlike Hubble, which was launched in 1990 with faulty optics that were later fixed in a space shuttle servicing mission and was routinely upgraded by NASA astronauts, the Webb Space Telescope, at about 1 million miles from Earth, will be on its own if anything goes wrong.

Webb will be launched in a folded-up configuration. About 30 minutes into its flight, the spacecraft will begin a complex, weeks-long unfolding process to extend its sun shield and mirror.

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Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.