UPDATE: Nobel Prize and ESA Announcement Could Help JWST

UPDATE: Nobel Prize and ESA Announcement Could Help JWST

UPDATE: A clarification was made to this article; see editor’s note at the end.

Advocates of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) got more good news yesterday. First the Nobel Prize committee awarded this year’s prize for physics to three American scientists who discovered dark energy, with the Hubble Space Telescope as one of their research instruments. Then the European Space Agency (ESA) announced that it will launch a spacecraft dedicated to dark energy research in 2019.

NASA’s JWST is often described as the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope. If that’s what Hubble can do, some say, just think of the science that will be done with JWST. The Baltimore Sun ran an editorial with exactly that message almost immediately after the announcement of the Nobel Prize winners. Baltimore is home to the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) at Johns Hopkins University, which operates Hubble and is slated to serve the same role for JWST. One of the three winners, Adam Reiss, is an astronomer there. The others are Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab in California and Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University in Australia.

Dark energy is called “dark” because scientists do not know what it is. The three Nobelists discovered that the universe is expanding at a rate faster than cosmologists previously theorized. Whatever force is accelerating the expansion of the universe is thought to be some kind of energy that cannot currently be observed, hence the term “dark energy.”

The JWST program is very controversial because of sizable cost overruns. The House Appropriations Committee, in fact, voted to terminate the program when it marked up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill in July. The House has not yet voted on the measure.

By contrast, in September the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended more money ($530 million) for JWST in FY2012 than requested by the President ($374 million) so that the telescope can be launched in 2018 instead of slipping into the 2020s. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) chairs the Senate subcommittee that made the recommendation. A Baltimore native, she is an ardent advocate of STScI and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which manages the JWST program. The Senate has not yet voted on its bill either, so the debate on JWST’s future continues.

National pride in winning Nobel prizes can be a strong motivation for funding scientific research. ESA’s announcement yesterday that it selected a dedicated dark energy mission, Euclid, as one of its next two science missions may fuel support for U.S. dark energy research and thus for JWST. Americans discovered that dark energy exists; will Americans unravel its mysteries?

Euclid’s launch is planned for 2019. U.S. efforts to build a dedicated dark energy space mission have not materialized. NASA and the Department of Energy (DOE) were set to collaborate on a Joint Dark Energy Mission (JDEM) several years ago, but budgetary challenges and interagency disputes delayed approval until it was time for the National Research Council (NRC) to perform its once-a-decade task of prioritizing ground- and space-based astronomy and astrophysics missions. JDEM was thrown into the basket of missions the NRC committee was expected to prioritize. In the end, it chose a multi-purpose Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) as its top space priority, with dark energy as one, but only one, focus. Like JDEM, it would be a joint NASA-DOE mission.

Ironically, WFIRST’s fate is being deeply affected by JWST’s cost overruns. With only so much money to go around, choices must be made on what to fund. Priorities are set by the NRC studies, but JWST was the top priority of the previous Decadal Survey in 2001. It does not lose its place in astrophysics priorities even though it still has not been built or launched 10 years later. Whether it survives or not at this juncture is chiefly a budget question.

JWST advocates are making a full court press to rescue the program. STScI hosted a webinar on September 21 with scientists and NASA officials explaining the merits of the telescope. Among them was another Nobelist, John Mather, who shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for mapping the cosmic microwave background. Mather, the first NASA employee to win a Nobel Prize, is JWST’s senior project scientist at Goddard Space Flight Center. He won the prize for work he did with George Smoot using a much smaller and less costly NASA satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE).

The lineage of cosmological discoveries from COBE to Hubble is widely expected to extend to JWST. JWST is currently expected to cost $8.7 billion, a sharp increase from last year when a special independent review found pervasive management problems that NASA insists have since been rectified. That review, demanded by Senator Mikulski, concluded that the cost would be $6.5 billion, with launch in 2015. The higher $8.7 billion figure resulted from a more detailed internal review by NASA that acknowledged that the level of funding needed to meet a 2015 launch date would not be forthcoming and the date would slip another three years, increasing the costs further.

Although Mikulski’s appropriations subcommittee recommended more money for JWST in FY2012, it reduced NASA’s overall budget from a request of $18.7 billion to $17.9 billion. The source of the extra $156 million for JWST is of great concern to scientists in other disciplines.

The concern is understandable. NASA has not told Congress how it would pay for the Senate committee’s recommended increase, much to the consternation of Mikulski’s House counterpart, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who wrote a sharply worded letter to the Office of Management and Budget last week asking for that information. At the webinar, however, JWST Program Director Rick Howard said that half would come from other activities in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) and half from NASA’s institutional account (which pays for civil service salaries and infrastructure, for example).

SMD funds research in astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics (solar and space physics) and earth science. Howard said that none of the funds would come from earth science, leaving other astrophysics projects like WFIRST, planetary science and heliophysics as the only choices. The increase in FY2012 is just the beginning. To maintain a 2018 launch date, NASA will need an additional $1.067 billion in FY2013-2016 for JWST. The agency has not released its plans for absorbing that increase.

That is why the attention being focused on dark energy and space-based astrophysics is such good news for JWST. Although dark energy is not JWST’s primary focus, it is on the list of “JWST science efficiencies” identified by Mather during the webinar. And with Europe moving forward on its Euclid mission, a race to be first to explain dark energy and win a future Nobel Prize may be just the ticket to convince Congress that U.S. scientists should be in the forefront of this groundbreaking science and JWST is the necessary next step. What price will be paid in lost opportunities elsewhere at NASA, and how NASA can better manage its projects to avoid such overruns, are certain to be controversial questions, however.

Editor’s note: This article was modified to clarify that choices and decisions on what NASA astrophysics programs to fund are made by many players, not just the astrophysics division. They involve input from the science community, various levels within the agency, at the White House and in Congress.

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