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will the launch of the James Webb Telescope be postponed?

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Ongoing scans to fix a problem seen in the last two Ariane 5 launches could (still) delay the launch of NASA’s James Webb Telescope.

The last time Ariane 5 flew was in August 2020, to deliver two communications satellites and Northrop Grumman’s Mission Expansion Vehicle 2 to geostationary transfer orbit. Since then, nothing. How to explain it? A few days ago, Arianespace finally acknowledged that the post-flight analyzes carried out on the last two launches of the launcher had indicated a “less than nominal” separation of the fairing.

According to some experts, the separation of the structure supposed to house the payload during the climb to space would indeed have generated more vibrations than expected. If none of the charges were damaged during these two flights (in February and August 2020), these “incidents” did raise some concerns about future missions.

We have decided to carry out a series of additional checks with RUAG (the manufacturer of Ariane rocket fairings) and ArianeGroup to guarantee the highest level of quality and reliability. The progress of these surveys remains positive ”, assures Arianespace in a press release, repeated by Spacenews.

The question is: could the launch of the James Webb Telescope, still scheduled for October 31, be delayed because of these technical glitches? For the moment, we do not yet know, but it is indeed possible.

The JWT, third in the queue

We know that Ariane 5 must launch two missions before that of the American telescope. The second of these flights (the one that will precede that of the JWT) will aim to deliver Eutelsat Quantum (Eutelsat operator) and Star One D2 (Embratel Star One operator) satellites into orbit. However, in its last earnings report of May 11, Eutelsat said that this launch had slipped from the end of the second quarter of this year to the third quarter, without specifying a date.

That being said, the same day, Greg Robinson, program director of the James Webb Telescope, for his part stressed that the American mission could only be launched about four months after Ariane 5’s last flight. So, if we are to believe these statements, it is hard to imagine the JWT being launched on October 31 as planned. If we count on a last launch of Ariane 5 at the beginning of the third quarter, ie early July, then the launch of the JWT could slip at the beginning of November (four months later).

Credit: Northrop Grumman

On paper, this is not very worrying. Unlike planetary missions, The James Webb Telescope can indeed benefit from a launch window almost every day. That said, we can’t help but see a certain irony in it.

On this project, the Ariane 5 launcher has long been considered the least risky aspect of the mission. And for good reason, the vehicle generally operates several flights each year and did not suffer its last major launch failure until 2002. But while the James Webb Telescope, after several budget crises and other threats of cancellation of Congress, is finally ready to be released into space, it is ultimately this launcher that could be lacking.

However, it should be put into perspective. This instrument will indeed revolutionize our approach to the Universe by probing space like never before. So we can wait a few more weeks.


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