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The James Webb Space Telescope Is Eating Up NASA's Astronomy Budget


Jonathan O'Callaghan

Senior Staff Writer

Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock

It’s no secret that the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is massively delayed and way over budget. But now we’re seeing the impact it’s really having on other astronomy missions.

In a short statement last week, NASA said it would “narrow the scope” of its next big flagship astronomy mission, due to launch in the 2030s and known as the 2020 Decadal Survey mission. At the moment there are four proposals being considered for this mission.


NASA said it would introduce a cost cap for the proposed missions of between $3 billion and $5 billion, due to “recent delays and budget constraints” with its current two major flagship missions. These are the JWST and Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), an infrared space observatory that faces being canceled by the Trump administration.

“The programmatic landscape has changed since the initial studies," said Paul Hertz, director of the Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters, Washington, in the statement. "We need to ensure we can accomplish breakthrough science while adhering to a realistic, executable scope and budget for the next decade.”

Previously these four proposals did not have any cost caps. According to SpaceNews, astronomers working on them were told delays to JWST and uncertainties around WFIRST were the cause of the decision. Another factor was that NASA’s astrophysics programs were set to receive less funding (down from $1.4 billion to less than $1.2 billion) in NASA’s 2019 budget.

“A cost cap of $5 billion is significantly less than the budget of JWST, which is in danger of breaching a $8 billion cost cap because of its recent problems,” SpaceNews said. “WFIRST, by contrast, has a cost cap of $3.2 billion but had to make changes, such as turning one of its instruments into a technology demonstration, in order to fit within that cap.”


The four proposals are interesting in themselves. One (HabEx) is a mission to directly image habitable planets around Sun-like stars. Another, LUVOIR, intends to find out how stars form. The OST would “revolutionize our understanding of planetary system formation,” while the fourth – Lynx – would provide “unprecedented X-ray vision” of the universe.

NASA gave the go-ahead for further work on each proposal in 2016, with one of them thought to be closer to $20 billion in cost. The Verge said the cost cap “may force scientists to alter the designs of the missions they’ve been working on.”

The JWST was recently delayed yet again to May 2020 at the earliest, a decade after its original intended launch date. While it will be an impressive mission, some may wonder if it is truly worth the knock-on effect it is having on astronomy.


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