Science Questions

What would NASA do with the equipment that's already been made if congress cuts the program?

Sun, 4th Sep 2011

Part of the show Why do some animals dump indiscriminately?


Jeremy Baker asked:

What would NASA do with the equipment that's already been made if congress cuts the programme? Because obviously, they're looking to make savings and there is a danger that the James Webb might not progress on the grounds there's no money available.


It is certainly one of the worries. 

The greatest tragedy here is that the mirrors, which are the most complicated part of telescope, are in fact completed. So we now have, at the space flight centre here, all 18 mirrors, each one as precise as the Hubble Space Telescope, in boxes waiting to actually be assembled into a telescope. 

The UK, for example, is producing something called the mid-infrared imager and it actually will be arriving here soon. So we will have these instruments also ready to go.

It's precisely because we have got so far with this that there's lots of rethinking going on about whether it was the right decision taken by the House – in the US system, there's the House and the Senate that decide on funding.  The House first voted to actually not fund the James Webb Telescope.  The Senate has yet to speak on the issue and I think people are beginning to scratch their heads and think, “Hold on a minute.  We’ve got all this hardware.  Is this the right moment to actually stop the funding?”


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I think it is very troubling to hear about potentially defunding the JWST. 

However, I think one should plan on extending the life of the Hubble indefinitely, and also plan on longer mission lengths for other space telescopes and satellites.  Certainly the instruments on the Pioneer probes were pretty crude, but we are far beyond that now.

And, for those probes that are "accessible", upgrade plans should be put in place.  It should be far easier to refuel and replace cameras than to  build the thing and get it into space.  It might not be a bad thing to add a "robonaut" module to the JWST, especially if there is a complicated deployment that might require adjustment from a multipurpose technical module.

I find it disturbing that the Spitzer and Herschel telescopes were billion dollar telescopes with very limited mission plans of only a few years.

If the JWST is mothballed, the mirrors will remain "state of the art" for many years into the future.  Even if one chose to scavenge parts to make a bigger telescope, one could easily add more segments to increase the mirror area.

Instruments, however, will go obsolete quickly, and perhaps they should have waited to make the instruments last.  One can, after all, purchase a 24.6 Megapixel consumer grade camera for far less than NASA is spending on the JWST optics.  It is only a matter of time before a 50+ MP camera will hit the market (quite likely before the launch of the JWST).

The big question is what comes next.  If funding is an issue, then we should not start building a new $20 Billion space telescope as soon as the JWST is launched.  Hold off on another space telescope.  When the JWST is launched, we will have the Hubble, JWST, Spitzer and Herschel, along with a number of other space based observatories.  The obvious next move would be a permanent lunar colony which would be followed by lunar telescopes.  But, one doesn't have to rush into it either.  Perhaps a decade or two of planning, testing, & development.

The Darwin mission, for example, was to essentially use an array of off-axis telescopes which would likely be easier to construct on the moon than in space. CliffordK, Sat, 10th Sep 2011

About $3.5b has been spent already and another $4b or so needs to be spent. If this is canned it could put long range optical astronomy back a generation. This should not have to be funded just by the USA. Although there are other funds coming in from abroad, the vast bulk is US funding. If sufficient was available from Europe or China (for example), and any other beneficial outcomes were also shared with the contributors, this may save the programme for the benefit of the rest of the world. Maybe it is a good move by congress (though I don't think intentional) to pursuade other countries to cough up more cash. There would have to be a sharing of the research value resulting from the development too, but it has to be a better option than stopping the programme.

Clifford, you are right about the electronics (including the detectors) going obsolete quickly. However these can (could have been) easily be replaced via a shuttle mission (oh dear) or via some other space excursion. The mirrors are the really hard bit and they will not be redeveloped so quickly. graham.d, Sun, 11th Sep 2011

I believe that all shuttle missions have been to LEO.
The JWST is destined for L2 which is beyond the ordinary shuttle distances. 

Had NASA actually developed an upgraded modular space capsule system, like they had for the Apollo missions, then they would be able to reach L2.  However, there may be benefits of developing a robotic service module.  Thus, one would only have to deliver the parts for the upgrade to the satellites, and not bring along humans, food, air, crew quarters, bulky space-suits, and re-entry modules.

Anyway, at this point, there would be a risk of the cameras going obsolete before launch, especially if there are further delays, which would mean more accessible upgrades, but wasted resources in the production of the obsolete components.

Certainly the USA and NASA shouldn't foot 100% of the bill for space exploration and general science expeditions.  But other countries are already doing many of the same things.  Europe already has an IR telescope located in L2 (about the same location as is planned for the JWST), and they spent a fraction of what the USA is spending to get it up into space.

A mission to Mars certainly should be a world effort, rather than a US effort.  However, I don't know if we can truly have 100% international cooperation. CliffordK, Sun, 11th Sep 2011

I didn't know that JWST was planned to be in such a high orbit though I probably should have. I just looked at a NASA presentation on how they planned to deploy and service it. Wow!

It does seem that $8b is quite a lot to do make and deploy this telescope but it seems a shame to waste the investment already made. I would like to see more international cooperation on big science like this.

I suspect that China may get ahead on a mission to Mars if the USA remains cool about it. A worldwide cooperative program would be good for everyone. graham.d, Sun, 11th Sep 2011

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