Astronomers still excited for James Webb Space Telescope despite another launch delay

Larissa Herold

Astronomers now have to wait at least another year for launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA announced last month that the launch would be delayed yet again, this time from May 2019 to May 2020. But for an instrument headed one million miles away from Earth with the capacity to see to within one billion years of the Big Bang, it might be worth the wait.

“Speaking in general as an astronomer, James Webb is going to answer a lot of questions that I’m very curious about,” astronomy professor Adam Kraus said. “So I would very much like to see the answers, but I recognize when you’re loading something on top of a rocket and shooting it off into space, and not even that near to us in space, it takes the time it takes.”

NASA’s press release said the launch was delayed to give more time to test and integrate the many components of the JWST, although the Los Angeles Times reported that NASA officials said tears in the sun shield and incorrectly installed fuel valves caused the delay. Five UT researchers are involved in the 13 projects selected as part of the Early Release Science program. They will get first access to the telescope once it is launched and will contribute tools, such as documentation and calibration, that facilitate further science.

“The science questions that James Webb is designed to answer are unanswerable with the current technology,” research scientist Kristen McQuinn said. “So they’re still going to be the same valid science questions despite the delay. In that regard, all of our projects will still be anxiously awaiting launch.”

These projects consist of a wide range of topics. McQuinn studies nearby galaxies. Kraus and professor Brendan Bowler are both part of projects researching exoplanets, which are planets orbiting other stars. Justin Spilker, McDonald Observatory postdoctoral fellow, is working on a project to study galaxies exhibiting gravitational lensing, an optical effect caused by massive objects curving space-time and bending light. Astronomy professor Steven Finkelstein is a primary investigator on the Cosmic Evolution Early Release Science Survey.

“The universe is 13.8 billion years old, so we know that’s about how much time the Milky Way had to get where it is, and we can figure out how galaxies evolve by looking farther and farther away,” Finkelstein said. “Because when you’re looking at some distance away, light takes time to travel to us, (so) you’re actually looking back in time. The farther away you look, the further back in time you’re looking.”

This type of research is not possible without JWST’s capability to see in infrared light, which has wavelengths longer than the light visible to humans. This is important because the universe is expanding, causing the light from very distant galaxies to travel farther and “stretch” to wavelengths too long for even the Hubble Space Telescope. 

“It would be great to have them both working at the same time, but that’s one consequence of this delay,” Finkelstein said. “It makes it less likely that Hubble will still be operating. You never know — it will keep going until a camera fails, or electronics short out or something.”

A more certain risk in the delay is the time-sensitive nature of the observation fields Finkelstein’s research relies on, which can be seen in December or June.

“If those fall in the first three months of observations, that’s great,” Finkelstein said. “If they don’t, then we have to move to a backup field, and the observations may be 80 percent as good instead of 100 percent as good. So I’m waiting with bated breath seeing when we’ll actually launch.”

Research proposal submissions operate on a timeline, too. This year, there was not a deadline for Hubble proposals because researchers were going to submit for the JWST. The delay means neither telescope received submissions, which McQuinn said could lead to a gap in funding for projects in following years. Finkelstein sees another aspect to the financial ramifications on a personal level.

“I just hired a postdoc to work on this program, and if it launches a year later, we won’t get the data until close to the end of her third year, and these are usually three-year positions,” Finkelstein said. “So now I’m trying to find a way to keep her on for a fourth year. I’m here for a long time, but graduate students and postdocs are coming through in three-year, five-year windows. And they come here to work on this, so I hope we can make that happen.”

Bowler said he is concerned about the effects the most recent delay will have on the price tag of the instrument.

“It’s a huge mission, so any delay costs a huge amount of money; it’s really the financial burden that impacts the rest of astronomy,” Bowler said. “The thing that it will affect in the future will be the next major flagship mission, WFIRST (Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope). Right now, everything is being funneled into James Webb, so it pushes WFIRST and the money that we could use to fund that development.”

Furthermore, there is a cost cap. If this delay puts Webb over the current $8.8 billion budget, things could get political — Congress will have to authorize more funds. 

“It would be horrible for them to decide to make an example of government waste in astronomy,” Finkelstein said. “It might need a few hundred million more dollars, which sounds like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, especially when the cost of the thing is $8-point-something billion, it’s built, right? Make it happen.”

Bowler said that missions have to be scaled back at some level to get initial support. Then, as they expand and there are inevitable delays, the price climbs upward. Kraus sees a similar pattern, but in a different light.

“It seems like most missions have ultimately gone over budget,” Kraus said. “It turns out — and this is just a statement about science — when you’re doing something for the first time, you don’t know what’s going to be hard until you come across it, and then you react. It’s not because people are not good at programming, or trying to lowball prices or anything. It’s just that you’re the first one to explore that territory.”

All five researchers said they recognize the difficulty of the mission. The telescope is huge, with a 21-foot-diameter mirror in 18 segments and a tennis court-sized sun shield that will be folded up for launch. Once in orbit, they have to unfold in a complicated sequence, and Webb can’t be serviced because it will be nearly four times farther from Earth than the moon.

“The delay obviously will push all of these programs back by a year, but we in the astronomy community have been thinking about how best to use Webb for years now,” Spilker said. “We all recognize that this is by far the most complex telescope humans have ever launched into space, and there are many critical pieces that would cause the whole mission to fail if they don’t work right.”

The other consensus? If you’re going to spend upwards of $10 billion on a telescope that can look almost to cosmic dawn, you want to take all necessary precautions to make sure it works. And even though this latest delay may set back future missions, personal studies and proposals, the possibilities the James Webb Space Telescope offers leave much to look forward to. 

“James Webb still has all the support from the people that I’ve talked to … in the scientific community,” McQuinn said. “We’re still completely behind the telescope. Obviously, we’re disappointed about the delay because we’re excited about the science. But we’re really supportive of the challenges that they’re facing, and we’re still excited.”