James Webb Space Telescope

Cosmic VarianceBy Risa WechslerJul 7, 2011 5:14 PM


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Sean mentioned yesterday that the next generation space telescope JWST is at risk. In a bit more detail, JWST has been cut in the House appropriations bill:

$4.5 billion for NASA Science programs, which is $431 million below last year's level. The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

In all, the House appropriations bill cuts 1.6 billion dollars from the NASA budget. The game is not over yet -- the House Appropriations Subcommittee in charge of NASA will consider this bill today, and the full Appropriations committee will meet again to consider the final bill on Wednesday -- and of course the Senate will have its own bill. But this is obviously a very ominous sign for NASA astrophysics in general. JWST is a 6.5 meter IR-optimized telescope, which has been scheduled to launch in 2018. It is certainly true that it has suffered from numerous cost overruns, and has essentially eaten the rest of the NASA astrophysics program. However, nearly all the technical hurdles have now been overcome. And the science reach of JWST is spectacular. It is now the only observatory-class mission planned to operate once the current Great Observatories (Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra) reach their end of life. JWST has been the highest priority for NASA of the Decadal Surveys and essentially every other study commissioned by the field. Hubble Space Telescope has given us amazing views of the Universe, back to about a billion years after the big bang. However, it has reached its limits there -- JWST would allow us to see well into this first billion years, to view the formation of the first stars, galaxies, and black holes, and to study in detail how radiation from these objects reionized the Universe. There are no other planned missions that will allow us to observe this earliest stage of galaxy formation with this level of detail. JWST would also allow us to observe the chemical composition of planets outside the solar system, and to image the disks around stars as they begin planet formation. It is hard to overstate the impact of HST on astronomy over the last two decades, and in particular on the public's engagement with astronomy and science in general. There is just something incredibly inspiring and awesome about space-based observatories and the images they produce, that are unmatched by ground-based telescopes. JWST is a natural successor to Hubble in this mission: it has tremendous potential to be a vehicle of wonder. In addition to the science that would be lost, the funding losses to US astronomy, and the set back of our research progress, this loss to the public inspiration and engagement in scientific discovery could be one of the most substantial hits if JWST does not go forward. I encourage all who are concerned about the next decade of astronomy to contact your representatives and senators as soon as possible. Termination of JWST would reduce the strength and visibility of the US science program as a whole, its impacts would be felt far beyond astrophysics. Killing JWST now also substantially threatens US credibility as an international partner, and sends the message that the US is just not interested in scientific leadership in major projects. More at the New York Times, the Nature News Blog, Sky and Telescope, and Bad Astronomy. House press release here. The AAS will be releasing a statement later today. Thanks to Garth Illingworth for some useful background. The case for JWST from a fan at the Vlog brothers: "I do not want to live in a world where we only focus on suck, and never think about awesome."

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