Webb telescope launch might be delayed again

Please consider donating to Behind the Black, by giving either a one-time contribution or a regular subscription, as outlined in the tip jar to the right or below. Your support will allow me to continue covering science and culture as I have for the past twenty years, independent and free from any outside influence.

Because of a scheduling conflict with a European mission to Mercury Arianespace might delay its launch of the American James Webb Space Telescope to 2019.

A time-sensitive mission to explore the planet Mercury, already delayed several times, may force the European Space Agency (ESA) and Arianespace to push back the launch of NASA’s multi-billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) into early 2019. The mission, named BepiColombo, is currently scheduled to launch on the same rocket, the Ariane 5, from the same spaceport in French Guiana, during the same timeframe that the JWST is scheduled to launch (October 2018).

A launch delay to BepiColumbo won’t impact the science of the ESA/Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) mission, but it would translate to a longer journey to Mercury. The last launch delay, which pushed it from April 2018 to October 2018, also translated to a year longer voyage to reach Mercury, now expected to arrive in 2025 instead of 2024.

This is a perfect illustration of the difference between governments and private enterprise. Government-owned Arianespace has been flying its Ariane 5 rockets now for almost two decades, but they have not yet learned how to launch two rockets in one month, and don’t appear interested in trying. Meanwhile, private companies like SpaceX and ULA are both working to achieve a normal twice-a-month launch rate, with SpaceX likely to beat that in the next few years.



  • LocalFluff

    At least one has to admire the coordination of the JWST and the BeppiColumbo teams to delay their missions by about a decade or so each, in order to have to launch on the same darn week from the same darn launch site! Do they use the Cassini mission orbital mechanics in order to achieve this perfect logistics coincidence, or are they just “lucky”?

    The Mercury thingy can basically launch every three month. JWST is 10 times more expensive and the worst principessa ever. Having her waiting on the Devil’s Island, or anywhere near Earth, is completely out of the question! 7 years of bad luck if that mirror breaks. Or even gets a millimeter unhinged.

    Please, put that mirror on the black wall,
    to see who were the first star of all.

    (I fear ESA sabotage here. Theirs own is the BeppiColumbo, but JWST is only paid cargo, with some contract clause to be exercised)

  • Ben

    Pardon my ignorance, but why is a NASA spacecraft being launched by a European launcher?

  • Ben: This was a barter deal between ESA and NASA. In exchange for providing the launcher for the James Webb Space Telescope as well as one instrument, Europe gets a share of the telescope’s observation time.

  • SteveC

    SpaceX is already launching at a rate above 2 a month.

  • SteveC: Not quite. SpaceX has launched 10 times this year, in 7 months. They need to launch 14 more times in the remain 5 months to make a rate of 2 a month in 2017.

  • SteveC

    They have 10 launches planned for the rest of the year, including Falcon Heavy. The range was shut down by NASA for repair for the month of July. SpaceX had no launches in April or planned in December, so while they are coming up 4 launches short, I have no doubt that they are already capable of a 2 a month tempo. Next years they will be back to 3 launch pads and if they have the customers they should beat 2 a month.

  • Edward

    SteveC wrote: “I have no doubt that they are already capable of a 2 a month tempo.

    SpaceX has shown this tempo for short bursts, but I think that it will take a little time for them to become comfortable enough with their procedures and processes to maintain a launch cadence of two per month. Having multiple launch pads and multiple launch crews helps.

    Launching rockets has typically been stressful for rocket and payload launch crews (meaning long hours of performing time-critical tasks, starting a few days before a launch), and a little decompression time has typically been given to crews between launches (meaning regular hours doing routine, non-urgent tasks). Once launches are made less stressful on the crews, the tempo should be much easier to ramp up to an even higher cadence. Once it is as easy and routine as getting an airliner loaded and underway, crew stress levels should be low enough to maintain a high cadence.

    Do not worry too much about customers. SpaceX has quite a manifest, some of which is backlogged (about half way down the page is the list of future missions):

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *