Last week was a sad week for astronomy in general and NASA in particular.
The worst news broke on Thursday with a subcommittee of the US Congress putting “”http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2011/07/07/congress-puts-nasa-and-jwst-on-the-chopping-block/“>NASA and JWST on the chopping block.” JWST is short for James Webb Space Telescope, which is the planned successor of the Hubble Space Telescope. The latter has been operating for more than 20 years, with its lifespan prolonged by a series of servicing missions, the last of which took place in 2009. But the telescope’s components will soon degrade and the telescope is expected to stop working within this decade, hence the need for a replacement.
The JWST was designed to be able to detect objects some 100 times fainter than those seen by Hubble, and it’s scientific goals include observing objects from the very early Universe and study star and planet formation. It is undoubtedly an important mission for astronomers, particularly cosmologists, as it would allow them to peer into the beginning of the cosmos and answer fundamental questions about the formation of galaxies and the structure of the Universe. But the JWST is also of value for the public in general. As Daniel Holz points out in a Cosmic Variance post, “this telescope in many ways symbolizes the best aspects of humanity: our thirst for knowledge, our desire for exploration, and our quest to find our place in the Universe.”
So why is the JWST in danger of never leaving Earth? Unfortunately the project has been plagued by poor management, has faced constant delays and its cost has been escalating (with price tag of 6.5 billion dollars, it is over four times more expensive than estimated initially). These reasons resulted in a subcommittee of the US House of Representatives voting last Wednesday a law that cuts all funding for the JWST. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that the telescope is being cancelled (the law still has to be approved by the full committee, the House and the Senate), the future doesn’t look bright for the JWST.
Astronomers are shocked at the possibility of seeing the Webb telescope being cancelled. This would have a dire impact not only on American astronomy but also on astronomical research worldwide. More, a significant amount has already been poured into building the components for the telescope, which is currently scheduled to launch in, or shortly after, 2016. As noted in the Bad Astronomy blog, “at this point, canceling it means billions of dollars will be thrown away, when the cost to complete it is far less.”
On other news, there was the much talked and written about final liftoff of NASA’s Space Shuttle, the agency’s launch system for human spaceflight missions. The end of this program isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As Phil Plait writes in the New York Post, “given the expense, the inability to go beyond low Earth orbit, and the aging fleet of Shuttles, the eventual cancellation of the program was inevitable.” The problem is that there is no definite mission at NASA to replace the shuttle, resulting in fears of decline for human spaceflight at the agency. (There are two interesting articles on the New York Times about this, which you can read here and here. For a more positive view on the future of manned space exploration, read this Bad Astronomy entry.)
But if last week was ominous for astronomy, this one is, at least, starting on the right foot. Today, for the first time since it was discovered, Neptune is completing a full orbit around the Sun. This means it will be exactly one Neptunian year, or 164.79 Earth years, since the planet was first observed around midnight on the 23-24 September 1846. (Note that there is some ambiguity has to when the actual birthday is — the BBC, for example, claims it is tomorrow.)
As Robin McKie wrote in yesterday’s Observer, “there is much to commemorate — for Neptune’s discovery marked a turning point in astronomy.” Rather than being found through astronomical observations, as the rest of the planets in the solar system, Neptune’s existence was revealed by the work of mathematicians. The discovery is credited to both Urbain Le Verrier, a Frenchman, and to the British John Couch Adams, who determined Neptune’s position in the sky based on data on perturbations to the orbit of Uranus. Astronomers in Berlin eventually spotted the planet after having been told where to look.
With the full committee of the House of Representatives considering the final bill on NASA’s (and JWST’s) budget on Wednesday, let’s hope the early week celebration of astronomy doesn’t turn into a lament.