Armstrong: Webb Telescope worth the investment
With the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), launched last Christmas and soon to reach its final orbit almost 900,000 miles from Earth, I’m seeing the culmination of an astronomer’s dream: the next great telescope exploring to the very edge of the known universe.
NASA has been working on this instrument since 1996, then called the Next Generation Space Telescope. That year, at the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C., NASA’s then-Director Daniel Goldin announced the first funding.
As an undergraduate student in the audience, I distinctly remember the excitement. Only a few years had passed since some incredible discoveries from the Hubble Space Telescope, and the prospect of a new instrument made us all a little giddy. At that time, I recall Goldin suggesting we’d peer into the very early universe and perhaps even discover another planet like Earth, complete with water, ozone and life.
The intervening quarter century has been a bumpy ride, filled with setbacks, delays and budget issues. The telescope was almost canceled several times. In the end, patience and perseverance paid off. It’s been a long road, but after a flawless launch and unfurling of the sun shield and mirrors, James Webb is finally on track to reach its destination.
Prior to launch, folks were concerned about the price tag and the various delays, but it is important to put these costs into perspective. It’s been over 25 years since NASA initiated the JWST. With a total cost of $10 billion, that equates to about $400 million per year. That is a lot of money, but NASA’s entire budget, including all of human space flight, robotic missions and Earth observations, comprises about a half of 1% of the federal budget. And $400 million is only a few percent of NASA’s allocation. We are talking about a vanishingly small fraction of our tax dollars.
But that’s also $10 billion dollars supporting U.S. industry over that same time period, with a substantial portion of it coming to the state of Utah, where they developed various components of the instrument. Any way you slice it, all of that money was spent right here on Earth, paying engineers, scientists and a veritable army of support staff. While it cost more than we estimated in 1996, some problems are just harder to solve than others.
In the end, all of those delays and cost overruns paid off with a flawless vehicle launch and equally well orchestrated month-long deployment schedule. This included the hundreds of individual mechanisms needed to unroll the sunshield a few days after launch, unfold the secondary mirror and primary mirror a week or so later and finally lock the mirror wings into place. It will reach its parking orbit around the Sun a few days from now. After cooling off for five months, we should be getting our “first light” images by summer.
What will we find? This telescope is sensitive to infrared light and capable of detecting objects that formed just after the Big Bang. That same light lets us explore the dusty clouds where stars form in nearby galaxies. Just maybe, if we are lucky and catch a planet at just the right time, we might be able to probe a planet around another star for signs of life.
I’m really looking forward to what we can’t predict it will discover. Just as Hubble discovered thousands of faint galaxies when it looked at an apparently starless part of the sky, I’m sure this new instrument will observe things we haven’t expected, or possibly even dreamed of.
Perhaps more important is the legacy of humanity this achievement represents. I’d say humans have crossed a threshold with this telescope. Unlike the Hubble, whose orbit will eventually decay, causing it to burn up in the atmosphere, JWST will orbit the sun until it dies some 5 billion years from now.
The Egyptian pharaohs may have had their pyramids, but we have the James Webb Space Telescope.
Dr. John Armstrong is a Weber State University professor of physics. Twitter: @ByJCArmstrong