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October 28, 2010 8:01 AM   Subscribe

We are nearing the end of a golden age of astronomy as more than a dozen space observatories reach their end of life in a few years. The only replacement on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2014. Due to its enormous complexity and ever-rising costs, the JWST has starved other projects of funding. The fate of an entire generation of cosmologists and astrophysicists rests on its success.
posted by Rhomboid (33 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite

 
Pretty amazing. Thanks, Rhomboid.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:08 AM on October 28, 2010


Have we learned nothing from Fast, Cheap and Out of Control? Build 100, 1000 or 10000 of adequate scopes. 90% make it to orbit and are operational. Link them up for better reliability, not to mention resolution.

Not every space program has to be based on the One Huge, Ultra-precise, Over-controlled Process model.
posted by DU at 8:12 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm very much looking forward to the images that JWST produces.

Here's hoping it doesn't need contacts.
posted by bwg at 8:15 AM on October 28, 2010


Have we learned nothing from Fast, Cheap and Out of Control?

The JWST has its origins in 1993 and the basic design and feasibility studies were done by 1996. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control came out in 1997.
posted by jedicus at 8:24 AM on October 28, 2010


Really hoping that the JWST survives the coming budget apocolypse alright and everything works the first time out. Failure of the JWST program could literally be the end of NASA if the anti-spending cards fall just the wrong way. 2014 is still a long, long way away.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:26 AM on October 28, 2010


Not every space program has to be based on the One Huge, Ultra-precise, Over-controlled Process model.

I know, right, DU? People building space observatories just don't get it. And we're left here out on the internet with nothing to do but marvel at their stupidity. WAKE UP NASA!!!!!

posted by ericost at 8:27 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Really hoping that the JWST survives the coming budget apocolypse alright and everything works the first time out.

Yeah, I worry about what an anti-science fact-o-phobic majority would do to NASA's budget should they gain control of Congress. Its not the cheapest thing we've done, but so much good science has come out of NASA over the years. The Hubble scope has been just awesome, over and over again.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:31 AM on October 28, 2010


Maybe they should adopt new units of money. This thing only costs 0.007 Iraq wars.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:38 AM on October 28, 2010 [13 favorites]


Yes, but to the general public, spending money on Things in Spaaaaace does nothing to help them with their miserable daily grind. That, and Jersey Shore is on.
posted by Old'n'Busted at 8:43 AM on October 28, 2010


Build 100, 1000 or 10000 of adequate scopes. 90% make it to orbit and are operational.

Isn't that just going to add to our growing space junk problem?
posted by adamdschneider at 8:43 AM on October 28, 2010


Its not the cheapest thing we've done, but so much good science has come out of NASA over the years.

Hubble was about $1.5b at launch cost, plus the cost of 3 servicing shuttle missions for a total of about $11.1b, more than that projected $5b for JWST. If the JWST is a sucess and produces anywhere near the kind of advancements predicted, it's worth every penny. $5b is less than the cost of either the Joint Strike Fighter or the Global Hawk drone programs and far less than 1 new Aircraft carrier.
posted by T.D. Strange at 8:44 AM on October 28, 2010


Isn't that just going to add to our growing space junk problem?

The JWST will be located in the L2 point, which I don't think is nearly as junked up as the near Earth orbits. There are only 4 satellites there right now (Hiten was crashed into the Moon and I'm assuming GEOTAIL is still there). For comparison, L2 is 1,500,000km from Earth, whereas geosynchronous orbits are at about 35,786km. Hubble is in LEO at a comparatively paltry 559km.

But launching a bunch of satellites with an anticipated significant failure rate would be a good way to pollute L2 quickly. I'm no orbital mechanics expert, but I imagine the 'sweet spot' in L2 that allows for minimal station keeping is pretty small. If it starts to get crowded, future satellites will have to bring along more and more fuel to stay in orbit because they'll be further and further from the actual L2 point.
posted by jedicus at 8:52 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


SPACE JUNK
posted by The Whelk at 8:55 AM on October 28, 2010


The JWST will be located in the L2 point, which I don't think is nearly as junked up as the near Earth orbits. There are only 4 satellites there right now (Hiten was crashed into the Moon and I'm assuming GEOTAIL is still there). For comparison, L2 is 1,500,000km from Earth, whereas geosynchronous orbits are at about 35,786km. Hubble is in LEO at a comparatively paltry 559km.

i'm not sure whether this was a bad dream or not, but I seem to remember some Johns Hopkins Space Telescope Institute guy giving a talk linking to JWST to the weird Cheney-Bush-Hitler moon base initiative, which seems to have evaporated like all of the other super-weapons. Basically, one of the things the neo-cons really want is to put soldiers on the moon, i.e. extend US military dominance to space. I couldn't tell whether the moon base was actually useful to JWST or whether he was just trying to piggybank on the funding.... or if it was a weird dream.
posted by ennui.bz at 8:57 AM on October 28, 2010


You don't put satellites AT the L2 point, you make them ORBIT the L2 point. Some of them are in ridiculously large orbits of 100 000s of kilometers diameter. There is NO lack of space in space. Except for at that oh so useful height only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth.
posted by Catfry at 9:20 AM on October 28, 2010


You don't put satellites AT the L2 point, you make them ORBIT the L2 point.

Well never mind, then.

There is NO lack of space in space. Except for at that oh so useful height only a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the Earth.

Geosynchronous orbit is getting pretty junked up, too. It's becoming a significant problem.
posted by jedicus at 9:25 AM on October 28, 2010


I'm feeling the need to comment, considering my vested interest. Isn't astrophysics one of those sciences where you gather data far faster than you can analyze it? I know this will mean a dearth of info down the line but, by then, perhaps we'll have a way to speed up the development process and what we're collecting now will keep the kids busy for the next few years.
posted by DaddyNewt at 9:38 AM on October 28, 2010


Yeah, I worry about what an anti-science fact-o-phobic majority would do to NASA's budget should they gain control of Congress.

I don't know about the Tea Party types, but Republicans in general seem to be fond of NASA, probably because of it's connections to the military. Also, astronomy in general doesn't seem to get the anti-science religious nuts' dander up as much as other fields.
posted by dirigibleman at 9:54 AM on October 28, 2010


"The fate of an entire generation of cosmologists and astrophysicists rests on its success."

Couldn't they just go back to cosmetology school?!
posted by markkraft at 9:55 AM on October 28, 2010


"The fate of an entire generation of cosmologists and astrophysicists rests on its success."

That's a bit overblown -- it's not like there aren't other telescopes in development for astronomers and astrophysicists to utilize. And with the advances in adaptive optics, the performance of many of them exceeds Hubble.
posted by CosmicRayCharles at 10:14 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


Wonderful thread title.
posted by Theta States at 11:57 AM on October 28, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure the link says everything. There's a change in research priorities because people have to crunch data from what they've got, so these other projects are coming online in their stead. Combined with that, terrestrial optics are surpassing Hubble so unless you want to build a moon sized 'scope in space it makes sense to focus on terrestrial projects, which the link above skipped entirely. Thanks CosmicRayCharles for providing some.

Consider what is affiliated with Fermilab alone. CDMS and COUPP are still busy looking for Dark Matter while Pierre Auger looks for cosmic rays and can detect which direction they came from. You can play along at home if you'd like and if you want something really cool, play back 17 events in Google Earth. The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is still chugging along, indexing everything there is and then some. The Dark Energy Survey is getting going while the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope is in more of an embryonic stage.

From the particle physics perspective, which feeds into astrophysics by nature, MINERvA just came online and MicroBooNE is being built. The LHC is also rather new and sure to impress us all, while Fermilab maintains other accelerators (I can never keep track of them all). New experiments include Mu2e, LBNE, MICE, NOvA, and my favorite, Project X.

That's one research institution. One. The golden age isn't over, it's just getting started. WISE and Kepler alone will have us going for decades.
posted by jwells at 12:57 PM on October 28, 2010 [2 favorites]


I know a couple people already sort of touched on this above, but the way it was explained to me was that the astronomy community had made a deliberate, conscious choice a few years back to move away from space-based and transition back to ground telescopes except for certain things. The reasoning was that, thanks to the ascendance of adaptive optics, much of the advantage that once justified the increased cost of space observatories has evaporated. So it's not that space telescopes are just going extinct for no good reason. Ground-based telescopes have become way too awesome, and space telescopes, with the exception of a badass minority, can't really compete anymore in terms of value per dollar. Who knows, maybe the balance will swing back to space again someday as the commercialization of space makes things cheaper.

Today, a lot of the really exciting and expensive new telescopes are being built on the ground. For example, take the modestly-named Large Binocular Telescope. Some almost stupidly large ones are planned for the next decade. Not to mention some powerful and interesting new radio telescopes.
posted by Xezlec at 8:12 PM on October 28, 2010


The end of the golden age of astronomy, no. Space astronomy, maybe. The TMT is scheduled to come online 2018. That's going to be a big deal.
posted by cman at 10:47 PM on October 28, 2010


Can I just have an off-topic rant?

From the article "The core instrument package came to include a large-field-of-view near-infrared camera (NIRCam) and a multi-object near-infrared spectrograph (NIRSpec), primarily for investigating the earliest stars and galaxies; a general-purpose mid-infrared camera and spectrograph for observing dust-shrouded objects in the Milky Way; and a fine guidance sensor and tunable-filter imager to support the other three"
So far, so good.
Then, later: "Nonetheless, the agency did not substantially cut any of the telescope's capabilities to bring the costs back under control. Instead, it looked for partnerships, securing major contributions from the European and Canadian space agencies".

Which makes it sound like ESA and CSA are just paying money to build this....whilst the reality is that 3 out of 4 of these amazing instruments are being built by ESA/CSA...which was the case from the beginning.....and the JWST will be launched with an ESA launcher from an ESA platform [ahem, so no points for guessing for which agency I used to work].

/rant off, it just never ceases to amaze me how US-centric some of the reporting on this is. sorry everyone
posted by MessageInABottle at 5:42 AM on October 29, 2010


Have we learned nothing from Fast, Cheap and Out of Control? Build 100, 1000 or 10000 of adequate scopes. 90% make it to orbit and are operational. Link them up for better reliability, not to mention resolution.

Linking them up to get improved resolution is super hard, and would be expensive. This is what SIM was going to do, and it's been cancelled.

what we're collecting now will keep the kids busy for the next few years.

Yes, except how will the "kids" be employed? Space missions employ lots of astronomers directly, and fund many other astronomers. When you get data, you also get money to produce the science. You can't get much research done if you can't afford to hire postdocs and grad students.

it's not like there aren't other telescopes in development for astronomers and astrophysicists to utilize.

This comment refers to the following telescopes:

ELT - Americans astronomers will not have access to this
TMT - For the most part, not a community telescope
GMT - Also not a community telescope
LBT - Doesn't seem to be producing many exciting results, but I'll admit this is a matter of opinion.
ALMA - Legitimately super duper cool

The recent decadal review did not rank TMT/GMT very highly. And the wording kind of implied that only one would be a funding priority. I'm guessing the TMT because it will be in the north and the GMT is planned to be in the south, where the ELT is also planned to be. But I'm also a little biased towards the TMT.

Most ground-based data does not come with any funding for a researcher to actually produce the science. A lot of that used to come from Space programs, but won't anymore. Where is the manpower going to come from?

And with the advances in adaptive optics, the performance of many of them exceeds Hubble.

This point was raised a couple of times upthread. Resolution is not the only factor to consider when judging performance. The Earth's atmosphere blocks out emission at various wavelengths. X-ray and mid-IR science will *never* be done well from the ground. It'll be like going from color TV to black-and-white.

WISE and Kepler alone will have us going for decades.

I have no idea why anyone would say this is true. WISE is already pretty much dead. Yes, people are still analyzing data, but all the cool stuff will be done on a much shorter timescale than decades, and it's certainly not going to keep any astronomers employed to do the work. It's going to be kind of like 2MASS. It will have utility for decades, but will not be an engine of discovery for that long.
posted by pizzazz at 10:14 PM on October 29, 2010 [1 favorite]


X-ray and mid-IR science will *never* be done well from the ground

Luckily, those fields are seeing the opposite of a retrenchment in number of orbital observatories over this and coming decades so they aren't applicable to the discussion.
posted by Catfry at 3:45 AM on October 30, 2010


X-ray and mid-IR science will *never* be done well from the ground

Luckily, those fields are seeing the opposite of a retrenchment in number of orbital observatories over this and coming decades so they aren't applicable to the discussion.


Help me out here, because that's not how I see it. In the mid-IR, Spitzer is in its cold mission, which will not last more than 3 more years. Europe's Herschel mission will end on a similar timescale. WISE on an even shorter timescale. WFIRST isn't going to happen for quite a while, and lots of IR astronomers are going to be struggling to stay employed waiting for it. The US involvement in the Japanese SPICA mission is entirely uncertain, and far off.

The current X-ray missions will keep chugging along as long as nothing breaks up there, but I don't see anything resembling the opposite of a retrenchment. What are you referring to, Catfry?
posted by pizzazz at 9:17 AM on October 30, 2010


Hubble was about $1.5b at launch cost, plus the cost of 3 servicing shuttle missions for a total of about $11.1b, more than that projected $5b for JWST.

I think the reason that people are complaining about the cost of JWST is that it is coming from the Astrophysics portion of the Science Mission Directorate. Some of the cost of HST came from the SMD, but a substantial portion came from other agencies. (For instance, the servicing missions were funded by the manned program). As a fraction of the SMD, JWST is just huge in an unprecedented way.
posted by pizzazz at 10:28 AM on October 30, 2010


Space missions employ lots of astronomers directly, and fund many other astronomers. When you get data, you also get money to produce the science.

Wait... you're saying scientists' funding doesn't come from grants for research, but from telescopes? And that's why you're worried? This seems kind of backwards. So the research stops as soon as the telescopes are de-orbited, if I understand correctly? That seems like a weird way to do things. Why don't we fund research based on whether there's research to be done, rather than whether there's a telescope in orbit?

ELT - Americans astronomers will not have access to this

Did all countries have access to all of those space telescopes that are going away?

TMT - For the most part, not a community telescope

Can you elaborate? I don't know what a community telescope is, but I know TMT is funded by a lot of different organizations.

In the mid-IR, Spitzer is in its cold mission, which will not last more than 3 more years. Europe's Herschel mission will end on a similar timescale. WISE on an even shorter timescale. WFIRST isn't going to happen for quite a while, and lots of IR astronomers are going to be struggling to stay employed waiting for it. The US involvement in the Japanese SPICA mission is entirely uncertain, and far off.

So in IR, several smaller telescopes used by individual nations are being replaced by one big one (JWST) that everybody can use, and then it sounds like maybe a couple more a few years later. Is that really "the end of an era?"

The current X-ray missions will keep chugging along as long as nothing breaks up there, but I don't see anything resembling the opposite of a retrenchment.

GEMS launches in 4 years. Astro-H in 3 years. These are mentioned on the graph in the article. That's something, at least.
posted by Xezlec at 2:33 PM on October 30, 2010


Wait... you're saying scientists' funding doesn't come from grants for research, but from telescopes? And that's why you're worried? This seems kind of backwards. So the research stops as soon as the telescopes are de-orbited, if I understand correctly? That seems like a weird way to do things. Why don't we fund research based on whether there's research to be done, rather than whether there's a telescope in orbit?

US astronomy gets 75% of its funding from NASA, mainly related to space-related missions. Another 15% comes from NSF (which NASA astronomers can't apply for), the remaining 10% comes from the DOE and DOD. Looking at just the NASA portion, when you spend all of your science money building one gigantic behemoth (JWST), there's less money left to fund researchers, and less avenues to get that money. No matter what science you are trained in, you better figure out a way to do it with JWST! And compete with every other astronomer to do it. JWST is great, but we are definitely coming off of an incredibly rich era of multi-wavelength astronomy. (I can't answer your question about why it's done this way.) I'm worried because if JWST fails or suffers from too many more cost overruns, then we've got very little left in the way of publiclly-accessible observatories. Rumors are that JWST is about to slip even further, and it's not clear how long Congress will allow this. At the same time, it's too big to fail!

Did all countries have access to all of those space telescopes that are going away?

Yes. Non-US investigators did not get the associated funding, though.

Can you elaborate? I don't know what a community telescope is, but I know TMT is funded by a lot of different organizations.

Only the organizations that directly buy in get access to the telescope. In the US, that will be Caltech, the University of California, the University of Hawaii. Canada, China, and India are also involved. If NSF decides to fund TMT, then some fraction of the time will be available to the rest of the US community. That remains to be seen. In contrast, national telescopes do exist. TMT will not be one of them. Neither is GMT.

So in IR, several smaller telescopes used by individual nations are being replaced by one big one (JWST) that everybody can use, and then it sounds like maybe a couple more a few years later. Is that really "the end of an era?"

No, the several smaller telescopes were accessible by all nations, just as JWST will be. However, just because JWST is bigger and more expensive doesn't mean that it "replaces" the smaller/cheaper telescopes. Spitzer and Herschel have far-IR capabilities that JWST does not. So, it's the end of the era where we could see the universe at those wavelengths, yes. Hopefully the US will get involved in the Japanese SPICA mission so that we can keep some experts in that field active for the future. What do you mean a couple more a few years later? WFIRST? That's also near-IR, not far-IR. And it will *certainly* be the end of an era if anything goes wrong with JWST. Then it'll be like when the Superconducting Supercollider failed in particle physics.

GEMS launches in 4 years. Astro-H in 3 years. These are mentioned on the graph in the article. That's something, at least.

GEMS is a very small mission designed to carry out a very specific science goal. It is not an observatory that can be used by any scientists that weren't involved in the original proposal. Random Joe Astronomer won't be able to apply for time on it.

Yes, the Japanese-led Astro-H will be good! But note that it and GEMS are still in the formulation phase, so they are not really anything close to a sure thing. They may never happen. Missions get canceled all the time before they get to the development stage.
posted by pizzazz at 4:01 PM on October 30, 2010


In contrast, national telescopes do exist. TMT will not be one of them. Neither is GMT.

Looking at that link and clicking "NOAO and the US O/IR system," I notice this sentence:
That roadmap must also recognize the extension of the current System to include potential next generation US O/IR facilities as the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) and Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT).
Does that mean the TMT/GMT might actually become one of them after all?

No, the several smaller telescopes were accessible by all nations, just as JWST will be. However, just because JWST is bigger and more expensive doesn't mean that it "replaces" the smaller/cheaper telescopes. Spitzer and Herschel have far-IR capabilities that JWST does not. So, it's the end of the era where we could see the universe at those wavelengths, yes. Hopefully the US will get involved in the Japanese SPICA mission so that we can keep some experts in that field active for the future. What do you mean a couple more a few years later? WFIRST? That's also near-IR, not far-IR.

So it sounds like far-IR is super-important? But haven't there been plenty of periods in the recent past when there has been no far-IR capability on orbit?
posted by Xezlec at 6:58 PM on October 30, 2010


Xezlec, TMT and GMT might have some share devoted to the community. Just like the general community can apply for a small portion of the time available on the Keck telescopes. But all of that remains to be seen. These projects didn't rank super high in the decadal survey, so it's unclear if NSF will help fund either of them. The NSF would have to kick in some money to buy the public share.

So it sounds like far-IR is super-important? But haven't there been plenty of periods in the recent past when there has been no far-IR capability on orbit?

Well, I think it is super important. Half of the total energy emitted by galaxies (stars and accretion disks around black holes) over cosmic time can only be seen in the infrared, with much of that in the far-infrared. I think the importance of the far-IR has been reflected in the history of far-IR missions:

IRAS - launched in 1983 and lasted 10 months
COBE - launched in 1989 and lasted 4 years (and led to a Nobel prize winning discovery)
ISO - launched in 1995 and lasted 2.5 years
Spitzer - launched in 2003 and lasted 5.5 years for the cold mission and is ongoing in the warm mission
AKARI - launched in 2006 and lasted 1.5 years
WISE - launched in 2009 and lasted 10 months for the cold mission and I think is ongoing in a warm mission
Herschel - launched in 2009 and should last ~3 years I think.

The MIRI instrument on board JWST is certainly part of this legacy, but the expense means that there will be nothing else dedicated for a long, long while. And if it doesn't work . . .
posted by pizzazz at 8:46 PM on October 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


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