Hubble Successor: U.S. Senate Decision Pulls The James Webb Telescope Out of Deep Trouble

Some great news is coming in from Washington! The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may just have got a new lease of life.

The mirror of the James Webb Telescope

Money and relief

We reported that the JWST was cancelled (here) due to fund cuts by the US Senate Appropriations Sub-Committee. Yesterday (14th September), the US Senate Appropriations Committee met to discuss the details of the FY2012 (Financial Year 2012) bill and, surprise and glee, the JWST was sanctioned $530 million in 2012. This is a big improvement over the $374 million it was sanctioned in the last year.

This will be music to many ears, both intimately associated with the JWST project and other space enthusiasts. Hubble has been as much a darling for the public as for professional astronomers, and it would just be a shame if it had no successor. Losing the joy of watching deep space in high resolution, never knowing what one will find is a joy unparalleled! No one wants that to end.

Save JWST Page:
The US Cuts Science Funds Due to War Cost: JWST suffers –

The continuing construction of a wonder

Recently the James Webb Space Telescope completed a crucial phase in the construction of its mirrors. It has 21 mirrors, made up of 18 segments, forming one giant 21 foot mirror. The mirrors are the best in the world. They are made up of beryllium, so that they can withstand the near absolute zero temperature of space. They are also coated with a thin film of gold so that they are good reflectors of infra-red radiation. All of this goes into making JWST at least a 100x better than Hubble ever was.

The 21 foot mirror!

Please note that JWST is not out of the woods yet! This is merely the money granted for 2012. The project will last till 2018 and there are still many hurdles ahead, especially for a project of this magnitude where the costs tend to swell up abruptly.

Apart from this grant to the JWST, NASA got a grant of $17.9 billion for the coming year. Although this is a $500 million reduction from the promised grant, it is still a hefty amount.

The champagnes must be flowing in the JWST camps.

[Editorial] How The US Fund Cuts Due to War Affect Science and All Of Us

Lost jobs, growing fuel prices and rising public discontent is the scene in the US as far as the economy is concerned. Funds are short in all aspects of life, whether it concerns fuel prices (government subsidy), the education sector or business. The dollar falling against the Euro, or even the Indian Rupee, mirrors the sorry state of affairs. The worst hit, it seems, is the science sector, which has been left crippled by a spate of fund cuts across almost all disciplines. The reason for this: War.

The “War On Terror”

Yes, the American long drawn War on Terror’ is acting like a very effective pipe draining monetary resources from all other aspects of governance and life. An estimated $4 trillion has been spent on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq (sorry for not using the label War on Terror’). The achievements have been few and too far apart in time. The most significant achievement in the eyes of the public is the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, who, experts believe, wasn’t very active anyway in the terror network and the success was little more than symbolic. Al Qaeda has the same reach and structure as it had just before Bin Laden’s death. If anything, the martyrdom’ of Bin Laden (as it is viewed in many parts of the Islamic world) has helped Al Qaeda gain more recruits without resorting to covert recruitment procedures. Not to mention, the operation has undermined the relations between Pakistan and the US.

Victims No. 1

Science has had to suffer a lot, as this foolish carnage was unfolding. The most notable victim has been the James Webb Space Telescope. Recently, we reported the plans to scrap the successor of Hubble the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and once Hubble completes its lifetime in 2014, there will be no eye in space in the visible range of the spectrum with which we will be able to peer deep into the cosmos.

What Next : Hubble to the left. James Webb on the right. Or is it?

The giant telescope, which would make Hubble look like a pair of binoculars, was set to replace both Hubble and Spitzer in one stroke. Spitzer, which observes in the infra-red frequencies, is still operational and is expected to outlast Hubble. The fund cut by the Appropriations Sub-committee is bound to render astrophysics blind for, at least, the decade.

Victim No. 2

There has been other victims with lower profiles. We had also told you about the ATA (Allen Telescope Array) of SETI put out of operation due to the lack of funds. It is a widespread misconception that SETI’s only job is the search for extra-terrestrials. The ATA was being used for much more than intercepting intelligent radio signals from space, like looking at radio signals originating from very strong radio-sources like Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN’s) and looking at transient radio-sources. This would be extremely useful for studying how quasars truly operate. Further, looking at any active radiation source in many wavelengths is of the utmost essence in observational astronomy.

Victim No. 3

Arguably, the best telescope is The Chandra X-Ray Telescope (no, it’s not the Hubble). Orbiting the Earth, high above the atmosphere, it captures stunning images in the X-Ray band. The X-Ray band of radiation is notoriously difficult to capture on film. The primary reason for this is the extremely high penetrating power of X-Rays; lenses made of glass are useless. The mirrors used to focus a parallel beam of X-Ray radiation need to be at glancing angles (about a degree or so) to the direction of radiation. Further, the mirrors need to be coated with pure gold. Both these factors contribute to increased expenses, the former being responsible for the need of large mirror sheets and the latter being responsible for the obvious reasons. The question is what next? What after Chandra? With the recent spate, there is real worry about the maintenance and succession to the premier X-Ray Telescope.

Victim No. 4

The search for exotic gravitational waves is also expected to take a hit. The existing detector, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna or LISA, is capable of detecting a gravitational wave emanating from a powerful astronomical event in the cosmological vicinity the moment it passes Earth. The problem is the back-up observations. This needs to be followed up by observations in the electromagnetic spectrum, which will be impossible given that Hubble will not have a successor and radio telescopes on land are also in trouble. In other words, a goldmine of observations (say, LISA detects gravitational wave after gravitational wave) will be going to waste given that there is no back-up observation. LISA will be effectively out of operation.

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.