JWST faces its own hubble, bubble, financial trouble

JWST mirrors

Should we be surprised by the latest assessment of how much it will cost to build, launch and operate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)? Documents sent to the US Congress by Nasa indicate the final bill will now be $8.7bn.

But if you spend annually what the US space agency spends on this telescope project and you don't launch until 2018 - that's about what you come out with. Those close to the project have been saying this for some months, so the new assessment is not a shock disclosure.

Nonetheless, the figure is now laid out for all to see, and at a very difficult time. The House Appropriations Committee has already declared that it would cancel the project given the chance, and the autumn is likely to see some pretty fierce argument and lobbying as politicians debate the future of "Hubble's successor".

The Senate has some heavy-hitters who've already come out in support of the telescope. These include Barbara Mikulski, whose state hosts the Nasa centre running Webb, and who campaigned successfully to get Hubble a fifth and final servicing mission even after that cause seemed lost.

JWST could be made cheaper if more money was spent now and it was readied ahead of 2018, but the cash flow isn't there to pursue this strategy.

Nasa has promised to lay out a financial plan for Webb as part of its 2013 budget request at the start of next year.

James Webb Space Telescope

  • Observatory due for launch now in 2018
  • So big it must be folded inside the rocket
  • Tricky part will be unfolding it in space
  • JWST will see the first stars and galaxies
  • It will operate some 1.5m km from Earth
  • Unlike Hubble, astronauts will not service it

The problem facing the agency is that in doing JWST, it is now struggling to do other things; and the ever excellent Eric Hand in Nature has an interesting article running this week that suggests every quarter of the American space programme will have to make a contribution to fund the observatory.

It was Nature magazine, of course, that penned the article with the famous headline "The telescope that ate astronomy". It must feel that way to those whose projects have already paid the price for JWST overruns.

US scientists would like to launch a space telescope to map the distribution of dark matter and trace the influence across the cosmos of the equally mysterious dark energy. This telescope, called WFIRST, is deemed the number one priority (after JWST) for the American astrophysics and astronomy community. But they can't even begin to contemplate such a mission so long as Webb continues to suck funds out of Nasa's science budget.

For its part, the US space agency claims that JWST is finally on track - that it now has the right management structures in place to see the project through and that all the major technical obstacles on this grand venture have been overcome.

Seventy-five percent of the mass of the telescope is in production or complete, says prime contractor Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems.

You'll have seen evidence of that last week in the UK where the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI), one of Webb's four flight instruments, completed three months of tests in a cryogenic space chamber. It will now be sent to Nasa's Goddard centre in Maryland for eventual integration into the observatory.

And for me now, it's this international dimension that I will be fascinated to see develop over the coming months… because JWST is not some private grief the Americans can simply close the door on; the project is a collaboration with Europe and Canada. There are consequences outside the United Sates if Webb is cancelled; there are promises and commitments that would be broken.

The US has already left Europe high and dry on several projects this year. In April, it walked away from three multi-billion euro missions-in-the-planning, forcing European scientists and engineers to head back to the drawing board after three years of feasibility work.

Europe is still waiting for a clear commitment from the Americans to collaborate on joint missions to Mars in 2016 and 2018. If that commitment is not forthcoming in the next month, both opportunities could fall.

And this where I get a little parochial and talk about British interests in the Webb project. It is not just that the STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC) is leading the European team developing MIRI; it is also that British astronomers will be heavy users of JWST, if and when it flies.

If you look at Hubble observing opportunities, it is UK scientists that have traditionally taken the largest block of time on the telescope after their American peers. Again, we saw evidence of that last week when Exeter University was awarded 200 hours on Hubble to study the atmospheres of planets around distant stars.

So, strap yourself in; this is going to be a bumpy ride. James Webb is already caught up in a lot of politics that has nothing to do with space and astronomy, and right now it's anyone's guess as to how this story might turn out.

Herschel (BBC) James Webb will be tuned to see the Universe in the infrared, and at longer wavelengths than Hubble. Its mirror will be bigger than the one launched on Europe's Herschel space observatory
Jonathan Amos Article written by Jonathan Amos Jonathan Amos Science correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    If there were any significant military application for this telescope it would have been funded by the military and not NASA. Of course it could all be a conspiracy by the military to get NASA to pay for their R&D and it's now backfired due to the argument over the budget.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    28. Mark
    We'd probably still have teflon as it was invented in 1938, some time before the lunar space race. I agree with the point you make however.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    This is a technically challenging project and the cost of these projects always overrun. NASA must make sure that the telescope will work as unlike Hubble it cannot be fixed once it is in orbit. If NASA is short of money it has to be a question of priorities and this telescope will show us things we have never seen before. From a scientific point of view the JWST is number 1.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    This is just like Nasa and America, do all the hard work, solve all the technical challenges. An then scrap the project because the senate would not sign the check to complete the project.

    It just a shame that Europe and Canada cant raise the money themselves and complete the project, because US would never hand over the parts it completed. So even looking for a partner is out of the question

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I think it'll be a crying shame if they do abandon this as it's not only promoting science, but cooperation among international partners. The effort of building it in itself is pushing forward the boundaries of science and technology, after all we might not have teflon, 'space blankets' and other materials we now take for granted if it wasn't for the lunar space race.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Point taken. Unfortunately it was my anticipation of 'the trap' and thoughts of future applications that got me into this whole dialogue!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Steve, I think it does involve interraction though. Those photons have travelled the length and age of the universe to arrive and interract with our telescope. A biologist might see incredible images through his microscope but he can't touch an individual cell. And beware of the trap of assuming that just because something doesn't appear to have an immediate application it never will have.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Dear Prophet
    Watching TV - you can look at incredible images, but cant interact, and never can. Exploration involves something more than that. To me it needs a purpose and an application.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Dear God
    Targetting and tracking software and precise mechanical alignments - used for missile targetting and delivery?
    Image processing and capture over the specified spectrum, searching for obscured tagets in poor visibility/under cover?
    satellite tracking and stabilisation in geocentric orbit, leading ground based missiles to appropriate locations?
    Sorry God, im only a stupid human

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    How does watching the TV equate to using a modern space telescope to view the early universe in terms of exploration? But yeah, sorry, it's about creating a big death ray in space. But don't worry I'm sure James Bond will stop them. Remember - they can't read your mind if wear a tin foil hat!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    What military applications?
    Have Al-Qaeda just set up in Alpha Centauri?
    What a stupid statement!
    Hubble was bigger than anything before and delighted a generation. JWST will do the same again, it will give us more insight and more incredible images of the fantastic universe we live in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    This telescope is not about advancing humanity, knowledge or exploration (may as well 'explore' by watching the TV). Its about developing the technology and its future (military) applications. How naive can you get?
    If I had known I would have become a watchmaker - AE

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I'm not an American tax payer, so far be it from me to complain. But for the advancement of humanity, for the betterment of our knowledge and for the joy of exploration, please please please let the JWST be completed. It's not without international benefits for the US either; It's a great prestige project, and would reaffirm the US position as world leader.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Whatever the cost, it will be met, if not by the USA, then by some other country with an eye to the future. Which country will be brave enough to place its money in this sort of education, I wonder?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    This is not a cost it is an investment you are putting into future of human kind and his knowledge. At least this money is not going down in fight against invisible enemy. And this costs overrun are normal for big research projects. You should be prepared for this and if you are afraid then never talk about discovery again.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Why is it that science always gets a step motherly treatment, reason is US keeps on trying to get the rookies right, even the futile ones. They spent billions on Pakistan and no much headway in sight, so much on military that their primary healthcare, economy is in tatters, leave aside the science. Surely, Europe would be much more prudent to shy away from US in future!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Why is 8bn considered a Massive over spend for a major achievement of human kind? Oh that is right it is Science and not the Military! :(
    The $17.5bn budget of NASA is considered by the US.Gov as Massive but the $1.23tn budget for the US Military is considered - not sufficient.
    What could science do with 1.25tn usd per year! I suspect be able to travel at least 10 light years in weeks by now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    In terms of scientific advancement, that cost would just about fund the description of all the species of the globe - about 8 million.
    Of course thats all low tech stuff - microscopes, books, pencils etc. but it would enable us to finally understand how our activities affect the biodiversity of the planet on which we live - maybe thats why its better to stare out into space?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    @The Realist - I actually work on Herschel, so I see where the budgets go. I will agree on one point though - NASA were told porkies by the prime contractor regarding the maturity of some of the technology, primarily the passive cooling/folding mirrors. Unsurprisingly, this is the major reason for the huge upswing in total cost.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Cheaper than the 2012 Olympics and a damn sight more useful.


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