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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“Why are you so interested in astronomy?”

This fall, I decided to take a non-credit course called “Hubble to Hubble” – an idea course on a bit of the history of astronomy, focusing (as you’ve probably guessed) on the contributions of Edwin Hubble and much later of the Hubble Space Telescope. There was more about the discoveries of other astronomers leading up to Hubble, and a fair bit about the development of the HST. (The instructor likes stories – a lot – and was on a team developing the Fine Guidance Sensors for the HST.)

After our second observing session last Saturday evening (the last meeting for the class), Paul – the instructor – asked me how I became interested in “all of this {hand-wave gesture}.” I answered that the main thing was probably some of the images coming from Hubble when I was first in college, like the teal and fiery orange image of the Swan (Omega) Nebula taken in 1999 and released in 2003.†

Swan Nebula (a.k.a. Omega Nebula), M17, 2003 HST & WFPC2 // NASA, ESA & J.Hester (ASU)

Of course, that’s not all there is to it. I remember, vaguely, visiting a planetarium many years ago, and loving it. It was so pretty and so unknown. There was my brother’s obsession with outer space, which meant that we had books on the planets for me to peruse (how could it be so cold on the outer planets? how could their years be so much longer than ours?). Halley’s comet last appeared in our sky in 1986, too early for me to remember, but I recall someone mentioning it – I think it was late one trip to or from Kansas, while we were staring out the windows of our car at a multitude of stars, perhaps at Orion the Hunter. It would be some 70 years before we got another chance to see the comet, an unimaginably long time to me then. (Interestingly, it comes around about every 76 years, and I will be 76 years old the next time it appears, in 2061.) I have many reasons to be interested, many people to blame. 😉

Still, I loved that IMAX film with the beavers, that we saw in Chicago, as much as the planetarium, loved dinosaur flashcards as much as planet books. And did you know, I share my birthday with Victor Hugo and two of America’s national parks – the Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons. I love fiction, and I am jealous of the camera used by Ansel Adams and of my cousin for her collection of fossils and semiprecious stones which she found herself. (You wouldn’t believe the trophy amethyst in a display case in her hall.) I envy, too, those who work with the warmth, the blanket of vitality and tangibility enjoyed by biology, chemistry or geology here on the solid ground of our home world.

† Come to think of it, wasn’t that just after I learned about Julian fractals and fractal art via Google’s honorary image late in my freshman year (and I somehow found the Hubble images while surfing for fractals)? Around the same time that I spent a weekend fuming at Coca-Cola for human rights violations at its bottling plants in South America, and another weekend crying for joy or hopelessness or the recognition of a family I didn’t know I had in Phi Beta Kappa? (I think my first college lost me as soon as I found those ΦBK speech transcripts, even if it took me two years to leave…)