Plan To Cancel Hubble Successor James Webb Space Telescope Sends Ripples Across Scientific Community

With the end of the space shuttle program, NASA wants to erase out its legacy. This seems to be the mood, one of disbelief, desperation and anger, in the astronomy circles, in reaction to the cancellation of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. The JWST, named after the former NASA administrator, is slated to be the successor of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The hue-and-cry follows after the House Appropriations subcommittee decided to slash NASA’s budget for the 2012 fiscal year by nearly 9%, relegating it to its 2008 budget figures. The revised funding of $16.8 billion is a flat $1.6 billion less than the 2011 figure and $2.0 billion less than President Obama’s recommendation to the subcommittee for NASA in 2012.

An artists' impression of the James Webb Telescope

The JWST project, currently billed at $6.5 billion, is $1.5 billion over its proposed budget. The project is beset with problems, typical of any such massive pioneering venture budget overruns, design overhauls and repeated failures to meet set deadlines. Apparently, the subcommittee thought enough was enough.

The Promise

The JWST was set to be the best eye in space, surpassing both the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer in its ability to gaze deeper into space and farther back in time. It is a dedicated Infrared Telescope, enabling it to peer through the cold and thick dust clouds that remain opaque in the visible wavelength regime. At about 100 times the magnification power of the Hubble, it was set to make Hubble look like a pair of binoculars. Debra Elmegreen, president of the American Astronomical Society says,

It has the potential to transform astronomy even more than the Hubble Space Telescope did, and it will serve thousands of astronomers in the decades ahead. We cannot abandon it now.

A graphic describing the JWST (Credit: NASA)

The JWST was slated for a 2014 launch, but was later slotted for a more realistic 2015 launch. Now, no one knows…


Even though scientists are up-in-arms against the cancellation, dissenting voices are emerging. Our own senior editor, Clif Sipe, makes a pertinent point

I think the days of huge government programs are over for several years. The entire European and US economies are in trouble, and might be for some time. When I hear scientists complaining about it, I understand, but I have seen fellow employees at work, being sent to the unemployment lines. That puts things in real perspective for me … most scientists will not lack for work.

However, others are not so sympathetic. Dan Weaver (@DanWeaver_) says on Twitter:

Canceling James Webb space telescope b/c it’s over budget? US politicians should apply that logic to real budget drains: Iraq & Afghanistan

Maybe there is a grain of truth in that. True, jobs and livelihood problems of people are important, but these problems have persisted in American society, and, indeed, of all societies around the world, for centuries. Isn’t it unique that a 20 year expedition by the most successful scientific device ever built the Hubble Space Telescope be followed up by the grandeur of the JWST?

An engineer inspects a part of the mirror that will form part of the JWST

The internet has been buzzing. Here’s a petition, open to only US citizens appealing for the restoration of the JWST project. The Facebook page for saving the James Webb Telescope is here. Twitter is overflowing with tweets about the JWST. Use any of the following tags – #SaveThisTelescope, #JWST or #saveJWST for your tweets or search.

Its indeed sad, but true, that fulfilment of the long standing desire to know the stars doesn’t come cheap.

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Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.