It's no secret that the James Webb Space Telescope has fallen on hard times. The U.S. House of Representatives recently released its 2012 appropriations bill, proposing to cut NASA's funding to $16.8 billion. This amount is $1.6 billion less than last year and $1.9 billion below what President Obama had requested. The bill specifically eliminates funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the Hubble Space Telescope's successor, citing its higher-than-expected costs and "poor management."
All the same, preparations for the launch of the JWST — now scheduled for 2018 — seem to be on track. Astronomers at the U.K.'s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) have finished testing the Mid-InfraRed Instrument (MIRI), one of the four devices that will analyze the light collected by the Webb telescope's 21-foot-wide (6.5-m) main mirror. The RAL engineers subjected the MIRI to extremely low temperatures — – 388°F (40 kelvins) — for 86 days, simulating conditions in space.
"The successful completion of the test program, involving more than 2,000 individual tests, marks a major milestone for the Webb telescope mission," says Matthew Greenhouse, project scientist for the telescope's science instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
By looking at infrared light from 5 to 28 microns in wavelength, MIRI will observe faraway comets, the formation of the first stars, and other deep-space objects obscured by clouds of interstellar dust. MIRI also includes a spectrograph, which can tease apart the light emitted by these distant objects and allow astronomers to learn what elements might be present. MIRI can even use its infrared vision to explore how supermassive black holes form in the centers of galaxies that emerged early in the universe's history.
Despite the project's technical successes, the James Webb telescope's future is not secure. The Hubble Space Telescope won't last forever, and astronomers have been worrying that the loss of the JWST — planned as Hubble's successor — would mean a decline in American space science for many years. There are hints, though, that the project may survive. The JWST team has reviewed its budget and come up with a way to save the scope. "The new plan has undergone independent review within the agency and by an outside team of experts to ensure adequate levels of both cost and schedule reserves in the appropriate years to successfully complete JWST development," says Eric Smith, deputy program director for the JWST. Congress will review the new cost-saving strategy in the future.
But how could project managers have botched the budget in the first place? "JWST was seriously undercosted when it started because NASA was at that time under the 'faster-better-cheaper' mantra and the administrator [Daniel Goldin] was its big promoter," says George Rieke (University of Arizona), MIRI science leader. "It has been hard to get to reasonable costing given that start."
The Appropriations Committee's cuts were proposed in part because of the Independent Comprehensive Review, a study called for by Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland. But the study was not all doom and gloom. While it concluded that the program's budgeting and management were flawed, it also found that the science and technical achievements had so far been excellent.
Updates continue to trickle in. An August 22nd report by Nature magazine's Eric Hand notes that NASA managers want to fund the JWST with money pulled not only from its space-science division, but also from its aeronautics, human spaceflight, and technology development divisions. NASA needs an extra $1.5 billion over the next three years to complete the mission.
Some people believe that not launching the James Webb Telescope could have ramifications far beyond NASA, eroding the U.S.'s standing in the astronomy world. "If we default on our commitment to JWST, then our international partners' confidence in us will suffer," says Bethany Johns, the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society. "The world will see an inability for the U.S.A. to follow through on its astronomical commitments."