Letter from an unabashed JWST apologist

This took a bit to write, but it is now written and sent to my representative in the House. It’s pretty long, I hope she doesn’t hate me for it. 😉 (Also, I hope that I don’t have to send it to my Senators!) Let me know if I’ve got anything wrong–I tried to be careful about my information, but this is the internet, after all.

Dear Representative                ,

I write to you with the hope of encouraging you to stand in support of one of the most important astronomical projects of this and recent decades, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As you know, a subcommittee in the House of Representatives recently introduced—and today approved—a draft budget that would reduce NASA’s funding and zero out the JWST entirely.

While it is true that the JWST faces delays and cost overruns, these issues should not lead us to give up on the project. The Webb’s predecessor, Hubble Space Telescope, faced similar problems in its development, costing several times the original projected amount by its launch date in 1990, the launch itself being delayed by some seven years between project-related delays that pushed it to late 1986 and the Challenger disaster that delayed it even further.

But we did not give up on the Hubble, and it has paid us back for our persistence, lending to discoveries that have changed our understanding of the universe and solidified its position as an immense success. Among other things, the Hubble captured the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter in excellent detail; gave us evidence that supermassive black holes lie at the centers of many galaxies; recorded the first visible-light image of a planet orbiting another star; refined our calculation of the Hubble constant, thus providing our most precise measurement of the age of the universe; and perhaps most surprisingly, gave us strong evidence that the expansion of the universe, far from slowing down, is accelerating, indicating the existence of dark energy—a force whose nature remains as yet a tantalizing and unanswered question.

Helix Nebula, HST, 2003

And the Hubble’s contributions have not been restricted to the esoteric sphere of astrophysicists. Through mediums such as the Space Telescope Science Institute, many of the most stunning images and discoveries of the Hubble have been released to the general public over the course of the telescope’s operation. These images are captivating, inspiring, iconic. Think of the “Eye of God,” the Helix Nebula, or of the Eagle Nebula’s so-called “Pillars of Creation.” They convey in the most direct way, not just the knowledge, but the beauty there is to be found in science.

Eagle Nebula, HST, 1995

The James Webb Space Telescope stands in line to continue and to expand the work of the Hubble, as Hubble—after more than 20 years—finally nears the end of its life. JWST has been identified as a top priority in both the 2000 and the 2010 decadal survey produced by the National Academy of Sciences. Equipped to observe primarily in infrared light, with a mirror more than two and a half times the size of the Hubble’s, and orbiting much farther from Earth, it will allow us to study objects both farther and fainter than the Hubble can observe, as well as viewing objects whose surrounding clouds of dust obscure them from Hubble’s view. The JWST will give us a clearer view of stars as they form, of the very early universe and the formation of the first galaxies, of planets beyond our solar system (even to the point of determining the chemical composition of their atmospheres), and likely, as with the Hubble’s evidence for dark energy, of phenomena at which we cannot yet even guess. And like the Hubble, it has the potential to inspire a new generation of potential scientists and researchers.

The James Webb Space Telescope will be central to astronomical research in the coming years and possibly decades. True, it is over cost and faces delays, but we can’t expect NASA to predict with great accuracy the full time and funding needed to design and build a piece of equipment the likes of which has never been built before, which is what Hubble was in its day and JWST is in ours. Even now, as noted in the American Astronomical Society’s statement of July 7, the major engineering hurdles have been overcome. The equipment is being built. It was recently announced that the mirrors are ready fully polished. We have come so far, so much progress has already been made, and the potential gains are so great that it would be a terrible waste to give up now.

Please, I implore you: Support science. Support NASA. Support the quest to understand our cosmos. Don’t let this project die before it has had the chance to truly live; please do not defund the James Webb Space Telescope.

I apologize for the length of this letter; and I thank you deeply for your attention.

Yours sincerely,

                                          
Denver, Colorado

* Note: My sources for this letter are primarily hubblesite.org, for information on Hubble’s discoveries and the anticipated projects for JWST, and Wikipedia†, for information on HST’s delays and cost overruns. Plus the mentioned AAS statement.

† I know, shame on me. I did check the cost at launch on hubblesite.org, and that disagreed with the Wiki figure, so I did not say that cost at launch was more than five times the projected cost (as Wikipedia indicates). So I’m not all bad for using Wikipedia a little bit, right?

Advertisements

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: