Fight to save NASA space telescope

Just imagine. Astronomers have designed the most fantastic new telescope. From a position far beyond the Earth’s atmosphere it promises to revolutionise science and reveal fundamental secrets about the formation and evolution of the universe.

Artist's impression of James Webb space telescope in operation
Artist’s impression of James Webb space telescope in operation (ESA)

Despite its promise, this powerful space telescope faces long delays and eventually a struggle for its very survival. US politicians cancel the project inspiring a worldwide campaign by scientists and the public alike to save it.

But today can anyone imagine the last 20 years of astronomy without the Hubble Space Telescope?

That’s right. Hubble. The telescope that has become an icon of our times, a household name and a shining beacon for astronomy and science. A generation has been inspired by this orbiting observatory that has showed us the beauty of deep space as well as the way the universe works.

Hubble has become a public relations dream whose images decorate books, newspapers, magazines and computer desktops as it simultaneously collects valuable scientific data.

It seems unthinkable that we could have astronomy without Hubble. Yet it was threatened with cancellation before its launch. And today history is strangely repeating itself as its powerful successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, undergoes similar painful birth pangs.

The already delayed JWST will dwarf Hubble, having an 18-section main mirror with a working diameter of 6.5 meters (21.3 ft) which will collect more than five and a half times as much light.

But it will look at the universe in a different light from Hubble because it will take an infrared view, peering through clouds of dust, spotting new-born solar systems and the earliest galaxies forming soon after the Big Bang.

Skymania News revealed the threat to the JWST back in April. Since then, although billions have already been spent on the telescope and its international instruments, US Congress has tried to kill it off. Its House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee specifically proposed axing the telescope as part of a $2billion cut in NASA’s budget.

The Discovery News website reports today that the cost of the JWST is continuing to soar, claiming that an independent analysis shows another $3.6 billion needs to be spent, lifting costs for a five-year mission to around $8.7 billion. While that may be so, it is surely worth remembering that that money is spent here on Earth paying people’s wages and doesn’t get lost in space.

The American Astronomical Society is marshalling the battle to save the JWST with a website, a Facebook group and useful resources for its “science warriors”. Its campaign is being strongly backed by groups such as AURA, the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

The campaign is asking concerned astronomers and public alike to sign their petition, like the group’s Facebook page and, most of all, for Americans to write to or call their Representatives in Congress.

A public fightback helped save Hubble and today we are reaping the benefits of that victory. But we cannot be complacent, sit back and wait for success again. Follow the AAS plan of action because this is a fight astronomy must win.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

One thought on “Fight to save NASA space telescope

  • 08/25/2011 at 3:33 am
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    I hope and pray that James T-Webb goes ahead as it will be a maginifent advancement in Human knowledge like the Hubble telescope fo the past was as is today

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