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James Webb Space Telescope on Track for March 2021 Launch, NASA Says

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope was fully assembled for the first time in August 2019.
NASA's James Webb Space Telescope was fully assembled for the first time in August 2019.
(Image: © NASA/Chris Gunn)

HONOLULU — NASA's next flagship space telescope is still on track for a launch in March 2021 despite long-standing scheduling concerns, according to agency personnel.

The James Webb Space Telescope has been notoriously prone to delays and cost overruns, but during two town hall meetings held here at the 235th American Astronomical Society meeting, NASA leaders emphasized that the launch date set in June 2018 still holds. A second major telescope is also continuing to meet its timeline, targeting a launch in the mid-2020s.

"This past year was an exciting year for James Webb," Paul Hertz, director of the astrophysics division of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, said of Webb on Sunday (Jan. 5) during an update about the astrophysics program. "This is your next great observatory."

Related: What's the Point of the James Webb Space Telescope?

But before it can become NASA's next great observatory, Webb needs to complete a host of milestones this year. Right now, the spacecraft is being packed up from the first test of its deployment. Next, engineers will subject the spacecraft to the type of vibration and acoustic environments it will experience during launch on an Ariane 5 rocket.

Then, the mission team will test deploying it again to ensure that those environmental tests didn't create any new problems. A host of other, smaller tasks are also scheduled for this year, according to NASA's Eric Smith at a separate town hall dedicated exclusively to Webb, which is currently estimated to cost about $9.7 billion. One vital step will be replacing some electronics that failed during an earlier test, which Smith said is the type of work that has never been done on the telescope before.

Smith emphasized both that the bulk of the work on Webb is complete and that the activities scheduled for the next 15 months are crucial to the mission's success. 

"We're just about done constructing the observatory; pretty soon it's our job here to realize the promise of that," Smith said. "We have the James Webb Space Telescope now. What we have to do is make sure it works as planned."

It's not just Webb that will spend the year preparing for launch — the project's humans will as well, according to mission operations project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland Jane Rigby. The team conducted nine rehearsals in 2019 of various phases of the mission, from launch through deployment and a six-month commissioning phase and into gathering science data; Webb staff will complete another 14 such rehearsals this year.

Webb isn't the only major telescope that NASA's astrophysics team is building this year; the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, is also a key focus of the division's resources, Hertz said.

"We are at peak spending on WFIRST right now so we are at the point in the program where we are getting the most done every year as we make progress toward launch in the 2020s," Hertz said. At one point during his presentation, he pointed to a slide of tasks for the year. "You can read this: We're building stuff," he said.

That work is supported by the NASA budget that Congress approved last month, which fully funds both Webb and WFIRST, despite President Donald Trump administration's proposal to cancel the latter program. The December approval of a budget marks a break from recent years characterized by drawn-out negotiations that have left agencies in the dark about the funding they would receive.

"I'm not sure how many years it's been since the last time I could stand in front of you and say, 'I have received my appropriation for the current fiscal year,'" Hertz said. "Those of us who work for the federal government are ecstatic. … It's really good news."

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@space.com or follow her @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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  • rod
    Admin said:
    NASA's next flagship space telescope is still on track for a launch in March 2021 despite longstanding scheduling concerns, according to agency personnel.

    James Webb Space Telescope on Track for March 2021 Launch, NASA Says : Read more

    There was another report recently on JWST for the L2 point. Infrared studies here.
    Reply
  • AT2USN
    $9.8 billion??? That's the cost of an aircraft carrier. I just can't understand how NASA can justify that kind of cost for a spacecraft.
    Reply
  • Hobbes
    It's a state of the art telescope, not so much an aircraft. The data (not to mention gorgeous images) we gathered from the Hubble are priceless and that baby is old tech.

    I'll take a new telescope over aircraft carrier any day.
    Reply
  • AT2USN
    Hobbes said:
    It's a state of the art telescope, not so much an aircraft. The data (not to mention gorgeous images) we gathered from the Hubble are priceless and that baby is old tech.

    I'll take a new telescope over aircraft carrier any day.

    I'm curious, and I am not trying to be confrontational so please don't take my comment that way, how this telescope (or Hubble for that matter) will help us on Earth? I don't see the correlation between astronomy and how that can affect our lives here. I can see the parallels of flights to other celestial bodies (moon, Mars, asteroids, etc) because the science that is conducted there can have a direct effect on our lives. Science aboard the ISS is similar. Findings there can affect our lives tremendously. But I don't see the same with a big telescope. Can you help me understand it more?
    Thanks
    Reply
  • fgrandmont
    Astronomy research is behind many of your everyday tech widgets starting with the cameras on your iphone. Astronomers were the first one to require digital record of the intensity in images. So they worked very hard for many years to get that tech to a functional non-noisy state. Hundreds of millions of $ has been spent on detector developement in JWST. This techno may make its way into a future iphone in 20 years from now for sensing toxic residus on food at the grocery store. Same is true for spectral decomposition of the incoming light which is already revolutionising the way we monitor agriculture field from space, contamination in our waters or analysing atmosheric storm patterns. Astronomers are very intelligent people and very passionate about the perpective of new findings about the universe (size, composition, past & future) as if they get closer to god by doing so. They acheive most of their science through a very small amount of photons received from the cosmos which they dissect in all possible ways (space, time, wavelength, polarisation state) with MUCH care. As a result, their optical tools are the most sofisticated of any field in optics.
    Reply