The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, is close to losing all its funding. The fiscal year 2012 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill, being considered by the US government’s House Appropriation Committee (see the release here), is to recommend $1.6 billion dollar cuts to the total NASA budget, with about half a billion disappearing from its Science programs.
Of course, we have to remember these aren’t 100% confirmed, but why announce something so controversial if you’re not pretty sure about it? After all, part of the bill provisions include the prohibition of prisoner transfer from Guantanamo to US soil, so you’d be pretty sure about making statements of that ilk.
Perhaps lobbying from the astronomy community will mellow things somewhat, but what are the alternatives? JWST is pretty ambitious (its mirror is too big to be launched fully open, and must be assembled in orbit at L2 to within millimetre accuracy). It’s also about four times over-budget, and behind schedule (note the image says 2013 – current scheduling puts it at 2018). Cuts are required all over the place (NASA’s not the only one to feel the pinch, if you read the rest of the release). As astronomers, we have to ensure that lawmakers understand the associated costs with cancelling JWST.
The costs to scientific progress are obvious – JWST was to be a game-changer in many aspects of astronomy. In my field of expertise, it was to revolutionise the study of protostellar discs and star formation in general, being able to peer through the dust that enshrouds these objects at early times, and help detect planets around other stars at brightnesses 10 to 100 times fainter than Hubble. All the hard work of Kepler, Spitzer and Herschel would be built on by JWST’s observations.
Closer to home, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh are building the Mid Infrared Instrument (MIRI) for JWST. Without a telescope to put it on, what will they do?
And they’re not alone – there are several instruments being built for JWST by European and Canadian agencies. Cancellation leaves these groups with an uncertain future.
All in all, it is a saddening (if not unexpected) development. Astronomy has been struggling with funding issues in various countries for the last few years now – with every telescope that fails to be built, niches for astronomers and astrophysicists disappear, and the whole community suffers as a result. JWST was considered to be something of a flagship mission – without the flagship, who shall lead the fleet now? Both American and European astronomers will have to box clever to safeguard future science (and future scientists).
If you want to help, join the newly-minted #saveJWST hashtag on Twitter!