Telescope promises new look at universe - if NASA can get it into space

Aug 15, 2010 By Mark K. Matthews and Robert Block, The Orlando Sentinel

When it works, and if it works, the James Webb Space Telescope could revolutionize astronomy by peering so deep into space that scientists soon could study the dawn of time.

But construction of NASA's next big telescope has been so hurt by delays and cost overruns that even its staunchest champion in Congress reached a breaking point.

In a letter dated June 29, U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., all but ordered Administrator Charlie Bolden to assemble a panel of outside experts to ensure the Webb project doesn't break its latest promise: a 2014 launch on a $5 billion budget.

"We like the concept of the Webb, but I tell you, we're not in the overrun business," said Mikulski, who chairs the Senate subcommittee with oversight of NASA's budget.

NASA agreed to form the panel and placed veteran engineer John Casani in charge.

Even so, keeping the Webb on track won't be easy. Already, the telescope is at least $1.5 billion over budget and three years behind schedule, thanks to poor financial planning and knotty engineering problems, according to government watchdogs.

And further delays and cost overruns are possible. Just last year, Mikulski had to secure an additional $75 million to keep Webb workers on the job as part of the $862 billion stimulus plan passed by congressional Democrats.

The budget-busting hasn't happened in a vacuum either.

An upcoming report from the National Academies is expected to underscore concerns that American astronomy doesn't get the funding it needs - a situation exacerbated by the Webb telescope.

"When Webb bleeds, the rest of space science hemorrhages," said Michael Turner, one of the report's authors and a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of Chicago.

Smaller robotic missions have suffered because of cost overruns with Webb, Turner said. But the project has been kept alive by expectations about what it can do and the need to replace the popular Telescope, which could end operations as early as 2014.

"It's been a long wait, and it's been very expensive. But when it is launched and operating, people are going to forget the wait and how much it cost, and they are going to go gaga about the discoveries," he said.

It can take billions of years for the light of distant stars to reach Earth. As designed, the Webb can see so far into space that it essentially can look back in time.

This quirk in physics will enable Webb scientists to learn more about the events that immediately followed the big bang, a cosmic explosion that scientists think created the universe more than 13 billion years ago.

"We are aiming to see the realm between 250 million years after the big bang to about 400 million years afterward," said Jonathan Gardner, a top Webb scientist. Hubble can only see within 800 million years of the big bang.

"The is designed to find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe," Gardner said.

Specifically, the Webb and its 21-foot infrared mirror will test the theory that the first galaxies were disorganized and composed of "very large, very bright and short-lived stars," he said.

Instruments onboard the Webb also will help scientists learn more about the chemical makeup of early stars and how elements formed and later dispersed throughout the universe.

"This is all about 'where did we come from? What is our place in the universe?' " Gardner said. "Sometimes science and religion are addressing the same question in different ways."

But before that happens, NASA and its international partners need to make sure it works.

Unlike Hubble, which orbits 350 miles above Earth, NASA plans to station the Webb telescope about 1 million miles away in what's known as a Lagrange point - a cosmic neutral ground where the tug of the Earth and sun even out so that objects in such a spot stay almost stationary.

That way, scientists can focus the Webb's mirror in one direction - deep space - while employing a shield that can block sunlight and keep its temperature-sensitive instruments from getting too warm.

Getting those pieces to work has been difficult, however, and a 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office identified several potential problems. The telescope must be compressed to fit aboard the European Ariane 5 rocket that will launch it, so a key concern was whether the Webb can safely unfold its origamilike mirror and shield once it reaches space.

"If program officials follow the current plan, the maturity of key technologies may not be adequately tested prior to program start," the report noted. "In addition, it appears the program will not have sufficient funding resources to ensure the program's success."

Since then, NASA officials said they have addressed - if not necessarily solved - these problems.

Geoff Yoder, NASA's deputy astrophysics director, said the Webb underwent a major design review this spring and that the appraisal found no "showstoppers" that could kill the project, including difficulties with the shield and mirror.

"That doesn't mean everything is completely done," he said. But he said it's a necessary step to ensure that the Webb works once it gets into space because its distance from Earth means there's no way astronauts could fix it.

"This is something that is a complex, integrated system," he said. "I think the team, technically, is doing a hell of a job."

He deflected most questions about cost and schedule until after the independent team led by Casani finishes its review, probably sometime this fall.

In the meantime, University of Chicago's Turner said the rest of the astronomy community will be rooting for the Webb to succeed - not just because of what it could do, but also so it no longer acts as a millstone on other projects.

"If we had to do it over again, would we do it differently? Of course," he said, referring to NASA's decision to rely too heavily on experimental technologies when designing the Webb. "But we're not building Model T's here."

Explore further: Star Trek-like invisible shield found thousands of miles above Earth

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eddiego
2.4 / 5 (7) Aug 15, 2010
Why people never go to Moon? I or we want to go to the Moon. If we could do science on Moon with robot and human, but if we could build rocket or spaceship. Not satellite at the by the Moon. We need the people go to the Moon. Why are you not building Moon city or Moon base. Stop playing around people we needed to go to the moon. We need to build spaceship or a rocket to go to the Moon now. The Moon is the closes planet to the Earth. The Moon is the place to live, to work, and to do science.

Au-Pu
1 / 5 (2) Aug 15, 2010
The biggest problem is that however far it will be able to see it will not be able to look beyond the visual horizon.
So it will still not be able to view anything that is older than the horizon, i.e. approx 13.5 billion years or whatever the latest calculation is for the visual horizon.
What that means is that it will be limited to giving us more detail about what we can already see.
crhylove
1.8 / 5 (6) Aug 15, 2010
This article is based on obviously dated information. There is no dark matter. There was no big bang. Our observable universe can be explained more easily and accurately by real science, not the wild imaginings of the ignorant.

Besides, why not build a moon base and a TRULY gigantic telescope on the dark side of the moon? It would cost more, but we would get much, much better science and discovery from this endeavor.
stealthc
2.2 / 5 (6) Aug 15, 2010
moon moon moon moon moon. Ah yes remember those failboat politicians and their moon crap not too long ago, even though we've already been there and done that. Screw the moon. We need to stop the pursuit of this other science for a bit, and throw all of our resources towards improving society now with these great technologies. Let's toss that money into more useful things -- now that you've got a telescope soon and the lhc and plenty of modern stuff -- let's start paying less for that stuff and spend more on helping out humanity and helping us all become more neutral to the environment but more independent of this system and it's wasteful excessive micromanagement.
gwargh
5 / 5 (7) Aug 16, 2010
moon moon moon moon moon. Ah yes remember those failboat politicians and their moon crap not too long ago, even though we've already been there and done that. Screw the moon. We need to stop the pursuit of this other science for a bit, and throw all of our resources towards improving society now with these great technologies. Let's toss that money into more useful things -- now that you've got a telescope soon and the lhc and plenty of modern stuff -- let's start paying less for that stuff and spend more on helping out humanity and helping us all become more neutral to the environment but more independent of this system and it's wasteful excessive micromanagement.

How about we fund wars less and keep science funding at least the same?
james11
1 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2010
stealthc, I agree, their are plenty of consuming projects out there that are unnecessary at time like these. "Think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country". Adults and growing children are expected to have structure and discipline, shouldn't a country as a whole have these qualities also?
DamienS
5 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2010
I hope the various project bunglings don't scupper this great mission. Perhaps the administrative bunglings are extending out to the reporting as well:

As designed, the Webb can see so far into space that it essentially can look back in time.

Not 'essentially', but it fact. And it's nothing to do with the way it's 'designed' - all telescopes are time machines.

This quirk in physics will enable Webb scientists to learn more about the events that immediately followed the big bang, a cosmic explosion that scientists think created the universe more than 13 billion years ago.

That light travels at a finite speed is a basic underpinning of standard physics not a 'quirk' and the big bang was not an 'explosion'. Sloppy.
jsa09
4.7 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2010
@crhylove
Besides, why not build a moon base and a TRULY gigantic telescope on the dark side of the moon? It would cost more, but we would get much, much better science and discovery from this endeavor.


The reason is that there is no dark side of the moon. Putting heat sensitive equipment on the moon will mean placing the instruments in the shade. Building a large telescope on the moon will mean that it will rotate along with the moon which is exactly what they dont want with the Webb.
jsa09
5 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2010
@DamienS
This quirk in physics will enable Webb scientists to learn more about the events that immediately followed the big bang, a cosmic explosion that scientists think created the universe more than 13 billion years ago.


That light travels at a finite speed is a basic underpinning of standard physics not a 'quirk' and the big bang was not an 'explosion'. Sloppy.


The fixed speed of light in a known medium is underpinning physics but most of astronomy is underpinned by the limited causes of red shift. Should it turn out that there are a number of additional causes of red shift in addition to movements of radiating sources then astronomy will undergo many changes.

The Webb will be of great assistance in proving or otherwise this belief. If it works.
Walfy
4 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2010
I would love to see some deep-pocketed space enthusiast come up with the funds for a safe return of the Hubble so it can have its place in the Smithsonian. Otherwise, its destiny is a fiery burn through the atmosphere. A cheap rocket with a return capsule could fly up, open its mouth, swallow the Hubble into a simple, padded chamber, then return it to earth with parachuted landing. Do it, rich people! Your Bush tax right-offs over the last 9 years can easily pay for this!
ThanderMAX
4.7 / 5 (3) Aug 16, 2010
Besides, why not build a moon base and a TRULY gigantic telescope on the dark side of the moon? It would cost more, but we would get much, much better science and discovery from this endeavor.


The problem with moon based Space telescope will be moon-dust, a powdery substance, which may pose hazard to both people and telescope. It will clog the hinges,motors, gears and may be your lungs also.
El_Nose
4 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2010
this as opposed to everyday dust here on earth

-- i get your point but really?
Gawad
5 / 5 (4) Aug 16, 2010
this as opposed to everyday dust here on earth

-- i get your point but really?


Assuming you are being sarcastic, it should be pointed out that moon dust was noted by the Apollo astronauts as being far worse than the dust we are familiar here on Earth. Moon dust does not suffer any notable kind of wear, as there is no environement to cause wear. This results in particles that are far more sharp, abrasive and "clingy" than just about anything here on Earth. As a result, the Apollo missions experienced far more equipement wear than originally expected.
fhtmguy
3 / 5 (1) Aug 16, 2010
Walfy: Since the top 1% "rich people" already pay 40% of the total taxes collected, I say rich people are already providing the funding. The problem is the lack of accountability in the public sector that creates these grossly over budget situations. The private sector (those gready capitalists that create jobs and get attacked by liberals) couldn't survive with management like this. So lets get control of waistful spending and we would have more money for all the science projects we could come up with. BTW, I am not rich in the money category just rich in common "cents."
rwinners
1 / 5 (2) Aug 17, 2010
The fixed speed of light in a known medium is underpinning physics but most of astronomy is underpinned by the limited causes of red shift.>>>

Is it? Is it really fixed? Light slows down in our atmosphere. It slows down in water. In other words, matter effects the speed of light.
What about 'dark matter'? Is there really a red shift throughout the universe? It is a theory that the red shift in light from distant sources is caused by the 'enlargement' of the universe. It is not a fact.
jsa09
5 / 5 (1) Aug 17, 2010
@rwinners

The fixed speed of light in a known medium is underpinning physics but most of astronomy is underpinned by the limited causes of red shift.>>>


Is it? Is it really fixed? Light slows down in our atmosphere. It slows down in water. In other words, matter effects the speed of light.


That is why I said "in a known medium". Vacuum has one speed and gas another and liquid yet another speed and so on.
Ethelred
not rated yet Aug 17, 2010
Is there really a red shift throughout the universe?


Everything outside the local cluster has a red shift. So yes there really is such a thing.

It is a theory that the red shift in light from distant sources is caused by the 'enlargement' of the universe. It is not a fact.


It is a theory that fits the evidence. For some reason the idea upsets a lot people. Some of the people are upset for religious reasons. Some just like to throw stones at established ideas no matter how solidly they are founded in evidence.

Ethelred
Jayman
not rated yet Aug 18, 2010
I hope they can go as far back to see God actually making the universe. Wonder what color his hair might be.
Husky
not rated yet Aug 22, 2010
while manned exploration/colonization of the moon/mars very much appeals to my sense of adventure, the Hubble telescope had a much bigger scientific payoff regarding the big questions of our universe than all moon missions combined, so yes, until cheaper space transportation and selfreplicating factories/robots gets developed,colonisation of space has too large economical hurdle to take. For the time being big/advanced telescopes give the most bang for the buck. I'd rather see a spacetelescope realised at the focal point of the suns gravitional lens so that we could get an unprecedented detailed look at exoplanets rather than a manned marsmission
Husky
not rated yet Aug 22, 2010
As for deep space missions, imho Nasa should leave it to the free market to come up with heavy lifters (like e.g. SpaceX is pursuing) to cut down initial launchcosts and instead concentrate on developing nuclear powered spacecrafts to take it from LEO into deep space. Nuclear power seems the most promising into getting something really big in deep space in an acceptable timeframe

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