Purse Strings Tighten Around the James Webb Space Telescope
Monday, May 7th, 2012
Imagine peering into the ultimate microscope, after years and years of painstaking work, finally on the brink of being able to see back in time. Back to when the universe was born, back to the very beginning of everything – and someone says, “Sorry! Money’s run out!” and unplugs it all.
Might be frustrating. Maybe. Just a tad.
A few months ago, scientists all over the world were faced with just that feeling when cost overruns and tight budgets led some in the U.S. Congress to question spending billions of additional dollars on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
The follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb project is a massive 17-nation collaboration, led by NASA, with key contributions from the Canadian and European space agencies. Their goal is to build a space telescope so finely tuned that it can capture light emitted billions of years ago when the universe came blazing into existence.
Now in its final phases of development, with a launch slated for 2018, the potential loss of funding during the summer of 2011 sparked an outcry from researchers the world over — not to mention from the private companies that have invested millions in new equipment in the hopes of gaining contracts to work on the telescope.
Among those pleading to save the project was a group of Canadian astronomers who, in a letter to U.S. President Barack Obama’s science adviser, called Canada’s role in JWST “the largest space science investment our country has ever made.” The astronomers said cancellation of the project would wreak “severe consequences” on both the nation’s astronomy and astrophysics work and also future scientific collaborations with the United States.
The cost of the project is expected to top $8 billion, much of it funded through NASA. While the Canadian Space Agency says that financial contributions from Canada so far are just over $135 million, the scientific and practical contributions are considerable.
Canada is designing and building two of JWST’s essential instruments — a fine-guidance sensor that will help the telescope target areas of the universe with pinpoint precision. A near-infrared imager and slitless spectrograph will help scientists detect “first light” — the light of the first stars ever formed.
In return for their work, Canadian researchers have been promised they will be allowed a minimum of five percent of time using the telescope.
And they’re happy to have it. The Canadian Astronomical Society has called completing and launching the telescope “the top priority for Canadian space astronomy”.
While Congress ultimately agreed to continue funding the project, capping costs at the $8 billion mark, the scare was enough to prompt NASA and others to launch campaigns listing all the good things that have already come from just the designing and building of the telescope.
Among them, says one NASA web page devoted just to JWST spinoff technologies, are improvements in camera lens technologies, advances in the testing of composite materials, and the creation of new optical measurement devices that promise to help with the diagnosis of eye diseases.
Designed to be launched ready-built, the Webb will feature a mirror 6.5 meters in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. Both will be foldable so they can fit inside the Ariane rocket that will be launched from the European Spaceport near Kourou, French Guiana.
The telescope then will be deployed in an orbit 1.5 million km from the Earth. There, it will spread its mirror and search for the beginning of time.
Hopefully, that is. We’ll see what 2018 holds.
By AJ Plunkett
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defense and aerospace industries as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.