Archive for JWST

The Curious Incident of the JWST and the Clamp Band…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 23, 2021 by telescoper

 

Just a quick newsflash to pass on the news that the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope has been pushed back until at least 22nd December 2021 owing to an “incident” that occurred during preparations for its launch.

It seems the sudden release of a “clamp band” – or is it band clamp? – caused unwanted vibrations through the observatory and it now has to be thoroughly checked before it can be declared safe for launch.

This is not the news anyone wanted to hear, but the previous launch date was 18th December, so hopefully the few days’ delay won’t cause too much difficulty.

I was going say that for JWST to work there has to be something incident on its mirror, but on reflection I decided that wasn’t a very good joke.

 

 

JWST: Nice Telescope, Shame about the Name…

Posted in LGBT, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by telescoper
The JWST deployable mirror undergoing tests

I heard last week that the ship carrying the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived safely in French Guiana and is now being prepared for launch on an Ariane-5 rocket at the European Space Agency’s facility at Kourou. Since the telescope cost approximately $10 billion there was some nervousness it might have been hijacked by pirates on the way.

I’m old enough to remember JWST when it was called the Next Generation Space Telescope NGST); it was frequently discussed at various advisory panels I was on about 20 years ago. Although the basic concept hasn’t changed much – it was planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope working in the infrared and with a deployable mirror – at that time it was going to have an even bigger mirror than the 6.5m it ended up with, was going to be launched in or around 2010, and was to have a budget of around $600 million. About a decade ago cost overruns, NASA budget problems, and technical hitches led to suggestions that it should be cancelled. It turned out however that it was indeed too big too fail. Now it is set for launch in December total cost greater than ten times the original estimate.

I know many people involved in the JWST project itself or waiting to use it to make observations, and I’ll be crossing my fingers on launch day and for the period until its remarkable folding mirror is deployed about a fortnight later. I hope it goes well, and look forward to the celebrations when it does.

There is a big problem with JWST however and that is its name, which was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

It’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name. The name is a symbol of a time when homophobic discrimination was even more prevalent than it is now, and as such will be a constant reminder to us that NASA seems not to care about the many LGBT+ people working for them directly or as members of the wider astronomical community.

P.S. As an alternative name I suggest the Lavender Scare Space Telescope (LSST)…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on October 26, 2011 by telescoper

No time for a post of my own today – it’s our “Staff Away Day” (which owing to budget cuts is only half a day and is being held in Cardiff, at the Millennium Stadium). Anyway, I was going to pass on the same rumours that Andy Lawrence is writing about, and he knows more about this than I do, so over to him for the ongoing ramifications of JWST…

JWST: Over and Out?

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 23, 2011 by telescoper

News filtered through recently that the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, which is already  threatened with cancellation owing to cuts in NASA’s budget, is now estimated to be around $8.7 billion dollars, about $2.2 billion higher than previous figures. In fact about a decade ago, when I was a lad, and chair of the old PPARC Astronomy Advisory Panel, the price tag of  the NGST (Next Generation Space Telescope), as it was then called, was put at significantly less than one billion dollars.

The implications of cancelling JWST are profound on both sides of the Atlantic. As Mark McCaughrean explains in detail over on the e-astronomer, the European Space Agency has already made a substantial investment in JWST and planned future contributions include the launch and substantial operating costs. The instrument development is nearly finished, but whether there will actually be a telescope to put instruments on remains to be seen. It’s clear that this, together with previous unilateral decisions by NASA, is putting some strain on the relationship with ESA.

There were many who reacted to the initial suggestion that JWST should be cancelled by arguing that it was mere political posturing by Republicans in the House of Representatives and that it could and would be reversed if appropriate campaigning took place. To this end there has been, e.g.,  a letter to the White House Science Advisor (here for non-US astronomers and there for US ones). There’s also been a letter of support from the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. NASA’s administrators have also apparently come up with a plan to divert funds from other projects to support it. These efforts notwithstanding I get the distinct feeling that cancellation of JWST is a very real prospect and it goes without saying that the chances of avoiding it are not helped by  the increased estimated expense.

I’ve talked about this to a number of astronomers and cosmologists over the summer and found very mixed views not only about  (a) whether JWST will be cancelled or not but also about (b) whether it should be cancelled or not. Even astronomers have expressed exasperation with the spiralling cost of JWST and pointed out that if we had known a decade ago that it would take so long and involve such an outlay then it would never have gone ahead in the first place.

So let me try a straw poll:

JWST: Too Big to Fail?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 7, 2011 by telescoper

News emerged last night that the US Government may be about to cancel the  James Webb Space Telescope, which is intended to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. I’m slow out of the blocks on this one, as I had an early night last night, but there’s already extensive reaction to the JWST crisis around the blogosphere: see, for example, Andy Lawrence, Sarah Kendrew, and Amanda Bauer; I’m sure there are many more articles elsewhere.

The US House Appropriations Committee has released its Science Appropriations Bill for the Fiscal Year 2012, which will be voted on tomorrow. Among other announcements (of big cuts to NASA’s budget) listed in the accompanying press release we find

The bill also terminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, which is billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management.

It is undoubtedly the case that JWST is way over budget and very late. Initial estimates put the cost of the at $1.6 billion and that it would be launched this year (2011). Now it can’t launch until at least 2018,  and probably won’t fly until as late as 2020, with an estimated final price tag of $6.8 billion. I couldn’t possibly comment on whether that is due to poor management or just that it’s an incredibly challenging project.

There’s a very informative piece on the Nature News Blog that explains that this is an early stage of the passage of the bill and that there’s a long way to go before JWST is definitely axed, but it is a worrying time for all those involved in it. There are serious implications for the European Space Agency, which is also involved in JWST, to STFC, which supports UK activity in related projects, and indeed for many groups of astronomers around the world who are currently engaged in building and testing instruments.

One of the arguments against cancelling JWST now is that all the money that has been spent on it so far would have been wasted, in other words that it’s “too big to fail”, which is an argument that obviously can’t be sustained indefinitely. It may be now it’s so far over budget that it’s become a political liability to NASA, i.e. it’s too big to succeed. It’s too early to say that JWST is doomed – this draft budget is partly a political shot across the bows of the President by the Republicans in the House – but it does that the politicians are prepared to think what has previously been unthinkable.

UPDATE: A statement has been issued by the American Astronomical Association.

 

Back Early…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on September 11, 2009 by telescoper

As a very quick postscript to my previous post about the amazing performance of Hubble’s spanking new camera, let me just draw attention to a fresh paper on the ArXiv by Rychard Bouwens and collaborators, which discusses the detection of galaxies with redshifts around 8 in the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (shown below in an earlier image) using WFC3/IR observations that reveal galaxies fainter than the previous detection limits.

Amazing. I remember the days when a redshift z=0.5 was a big deal!

To put this in context and to give some idea of its importance, remember that the redshift z is defined in such a way that 1+z is the factor by which the wavelength of light is stretched out by the expansion of the Universe. Thus, a photon from a galaxy at redshift 8 started out on its journey towards us (or, rather, the Hubble Space Telescope) when the Universe was compressed in all directions relative to its present size by a factor of 9. The average density of stuff then was a factor 93=729 larger, so the Universe was a much more crowded place then compared to what it’s like now.

Translating the redshift into a time is trickier because it requires us to know how the expansion rate of the Universe varies with cosmic epoch. The requires solving the equations of a cosmological model or, more realistically for a Friday afternoon, plugging the numbers into Ned Wright’s famous cosmology calculator.

Using the best-estimate parameters for the current concordance cosmology reveals that at redshift 8, the Universe was only about 0.65 billion years old (i.e. light from the distant galaxies seen by HST set out only 650 million years after the Big Bang). Since the current age of the Universe is about 13.7 billion years (according to the same model), this means that the light Hubble detected set out on its journey towards us an astonishing 13 billion years ago.

More importantly for theories of galaxy formation and evolution, this means that at least some galaxies must have formed very early on, relatively speaking, in the first 5% of the time the Universe has been around for until now.

These observations are by no means certain as the redshifts have been determined only approximately using photometric techniques rather than the more accurate spectroscopic methods, but if they’re correct they could be extremely important.

At the very least they provide even stronger motivation for getting on with the next-generation space telescope, JWST.