NASA delays James Webb Space Telescope launch after "incident"

  • In Science
  • 2021-11-23 00:17:00Z
  • By CBS News

The long-awaited launch of the nearly $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope is slipping at least four days, from December 18 to no earlier than December 22, after an incident during processing in French Guiana that briefly jostled the costly observatory.

The European consortium Arianespace is readying the infrared telescope for launch atop an Ariane 5 rocket in partnership with the European Space Agency and NASA, saving the U.S. agency to cost of boosting the observatory into space.

An artist
An artist's impression of the James Webb Space Telescope after launch with its segmented primary mirror fully deployed and its five-layer sunshade, the size of a tennis court, pulled taut to lower temperatures to within a few degrees of absolute zero.  

The incident occurred in a processing facility at the Ariane 5 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."

NASA has convened an "anomaly review board" to assess the incident and to determine if any of the observatory's mechanisms or sub-systems might have been damaged or shaken out of the precise alignment needed for smooth operations.

An update is expected by the end of the week.

Too large to fit in any current rocket
Too large to fit in any current rocket's nosecone, the Webb telescope was designed to precisely fold up for launch.  

Unlike the more traditional Hubble Space Telescope, Webb's much larger 21-foot-wide primary mirror and the sunshade needed to keep the infrared telescope at temperatures near absolute zero were designed to be folded up for launch.

Once in space, the tennis court-size sunshade, made up of five membranes the thickness of a human hair, must be released and pulled taught by scores of motor-driven cables routed through dozens of pulleys.

The telescope's secondary mirror, mounted atop a folded tripod, must deploy and lock in place and six of the primary mirror's 18 segments, which were folded away for launch, must rotate into position.

Those deployments and others, including Webb's solar array and radiator panels, all must deploy as planned for the telescope to capture the faint infrared light generated by the first generations of stars and galaxies that formed in the wake of the big bang.

Webb was designed to endure the vibrations and acoustics of launch, but it's not yet known what sort of "loads" the unplanned clamp release might have imparted or what caused the mechanism to release in the first place.

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