JWST launch is delayed due to a communication issue

NASA stated late December 14 that a communications issue has delayed the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by a minimum of two days. NASA announced in a statement that the launch had been postponed due to a “communication issue between both the observatory as well as the launch vehicle system.” The launch, which was originally set for December 22, has been pushed back to no earlier than December 24.

NASA released no further details on the issue, just stating that it would revise launch plans by December 17. According to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator in charge of science, the issue is with a 100-meter-long cable that is part of the ground support equipment and is experiencing periodic data loss.

In a discussion with Spaceflight Now, Zurbuchen stated, “The approach to thinking about it is it’s a ground assistance equipment item.  Basically, some frames are being dropped by the data wires.” Technicians inside the final assembly building for the Ariane 5 rocket in Kourou have attempted to determine the problem, but have so far been unsuccessful.

“We’re going up there tomorrow with the ground assistance equipment and just really flushing out where the problem is,” Zurbuchen added. “We’ve tried a lot of different things and haven’t been effective with any of them.” This is basically a 100-meter cable which connects the rocket’s tip to a computer on the ground. Our best estimate is that the problem is somewhere in there.”

This is the second problem that has caused the launch to be postponed since JWST arrived in French Guiana in October. A clamp band that connects the spacecraft to the payload adapter unexpectedly loosened in November, causing the spacecraft to vibrate. The launch was pushed back from December 18 to December 22 due to the need to assess the spacecraft and verify there was no damage. NASA gave scant details regarding that occurrence, as it did with the most recent incident.

Officials from Arianespace and the European Space Agency stated the launch would take place on December 22. During a discussion panel at Euroconsult’s World Satellite Business Week, Stéphane Isral, who is the chief executive officer of Arianespace, remarked, “The campaign is extraordinary because it lasts three months instead of a conventional campaign, which lasts one month.  This is the decade’s mission, and we’ve been building on it for twenty years.  We’re laser-focused.”

He also stated that over 150 NASA personnel are in Kourou to assist with the launch. “We’ve provided NASA the most sight into our launcher possible.” At a press briefing earlier in the day, ESA Director General Josef Aschbacher said, “I’m actually very glad that NASA has assigned this generation launch to ESA.  We’re doing everything we can to be a very powerful and good partner in ensuring that this jewel, a one-of-a-kind telescope which will function for decades, is safely delivered to space.”

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