In defense of the James Webb Space Telescope

Yesterday I heard through Phil Plait on Twitter (who writes Discover’s Bad Astronomy blog) that a new budget draft from the House Appropriations Committee would slash budgets for the sciences, most notably that of NASA, whose budget for FY 2012 would be $1.6 billion lower than this year. That’s a huge cut, and the bill would explicitly scrap the entire James Webb Space Telescope project!

JWST is seen as being the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has been operating for over 20 years and has contributed immensely to our understanding of the cosmos. (Tidbit: We knew the universe is expanding, thanks to Edwin Hubble in the first half of the 20th century, but it was his namesake space telescope that showed us that not only is the universe expanding, that expansion is speeding up!) Hubble has peered back almost to the origins of the first galaxies; James Webb would take us even further. With it, we could see the formation of the first galaxies and stars; could see stars forming inside the clouds of gas and dust that obscure them from Hubble’s view. We could look for planets orbiting other suns, and even get a picture of what elements those planets harbor–that’s so much more than the faint hint of a planet that we get now with Kepler! We could look at other planets, outside our solar system!

In case you haven’t seen my earlier post on Hubble and my interest in things astronomical, it was the stunning imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope that first piqued my curiosity about galaxies and star clusters and nebulae. These images are breathtaking, some of them bizarre, some ethereal, some almost incredible: they are like works of art. But they’re not paintings, not mere imagined things; these are images of objects, flaming gas balls, pinwheels of light, and dusty clouds some of which are hundreds of thousands of light-years across and millions or billions of light-years away (millions or billions of years in the past!) and all of which are really out there in the vast dark of our universe. Can you even begin to imagine such immense size or distance? Can you wrap your head around the fact that by looking through a telescope in space, we can look at the past–so far in the past that we can almost see the universe before it even had galaxies? This was the power of Hubble for me; but Hubble’s life is almost over, and it’s time for something new to take its place. James Webb can be that something for a whole new generation, but only if we see it through.

There are billions of dollars invested in JWST already. The mirrors, it was announced last week, are fully polished. The equipment, part by part, is being completed. This telescope is at the top of the priorities for astrophysics research, described in Nature News as “the key to almost every big question that astronomers hope to answer in the coming decades;” its importance for America’s standing in the field of astronomy is hard to overstate, and its power to captivate and engage the interest of the public will probably be at least as great as that of Hubble. And the House Appropriations Committee is telling us to throw all that away when we have already come so far.

We are already losing the shuttle program. Please, please don’t let this happen to JWST.

Links to more info here:

And here, a pretty entertaining vlog advocating for the JWST:


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