JWST vs. CanariCam

by Clark M. Thomas

The laws of economics are ultimately more powerful than laws passed by legislators. Underlying the economic laws are yet other profound laws, such as Malthusian population forces, Darwinism, and ultimately the fundamental laws of interpenetrating systems. That's a lot to swallow, so we citizens and our politicians tend to focus on personalities and on easy associations.

Astronomy on the large scale is not immune to the laws of economics. For a while, when the national debt was low, and when it was the good USA vs. the evil USSR, most Americans were strongly behind Big Astronomy as we sought to plant our flag on the Moon before the commies got there. Science always was an afterthought. American heroism was the real prize.

Even before the Apollo era ended, there was a sharp drop-off in interest among Americans. There was a war in Vietnam to wage, and hippies to squash. We had other ways to flex our cultural muscles. Then along came Hubble.

Hubble is the gold standard for Big Astronomy, the ultimate astronomical scientific tool. For over a generation this marvelous instrument has opened up major portions of the heavens, astonishing and romancing even the indifferent masses.

However, Hubble's fairly limited infrared capabilities have minimized its operational bandwith. Not to worry, the electromagnetic spectrum is large. Other space-based instruments have explored such realms as Xrays and a larger portion of the infrared. The modestly expensive Kepler and Spitzer have recently opened up more of the infrared.

Why is infrared so important? Intrastellar dust absorbs visual light, but it is not nearly as absorbent of the infrared. Many objects hidden from Hubble's sharp eye can be detected by Spitzer and Kepler and even more by the James Webb. Nevertheless are their powers enough to answer fundamental questions about our origins, and about life outside our solar system?

The JWST is designed to go beyond Kepler and Hubble. It is going to see even deeper into the past but only to where we will get slightly closer to the local big bang. It is not going to reveal "the moment of creation," as some proponents of the trouble plagued European atom smasher dream.

In a patriotically perfect world (where we imagined we were living when JFK challenged us to be first on the Moon) all things seem possible. Now, however, we are witnessing the evisceration of the American middle class, massive debt accumulations, and never-ending red ink in the perpetual pursuit of bad guys on the other side of our planet. It's hard for a noble scientific experiment other than Hubble to compete with all that mess, and Hubble has already been paid for in money and blood.

The James Webb Space Telescope is supposed to be Hubble's successor, but it will only be one of several grand space platforms, all unmanned. Hubble would be virtual space junk if it were not for the fabulously expensive Shuttle and its five service missions. JWST cannot be serviced by humans in space. This is where the critical problem lies.

Many billions of dollars will evaporate if the JWST is not a perfect launch and deployment. I believe it is likely that NASA will dazzle us with perfection; but it is also not hard to imagine something less than perfection. Because of its umbrella style design, anything less than de-cocooning perfection would be total failure. Imagine what the political backlash would be if such a failure occurred. All sorts of astronomy projects could be endangered. I don't want this to ever happen to our science, if we can do a technical work around with other instruments to get the same or similar cosmological science.

Futuristic astronomy is close upon us. There are now several huge land instruments with great light gathering power and "laser guide stars," along with active adjustment of segmental mirrors to offset atmospheric distortions. Furthermore we can link distant radio telescopes with computers to make virtual instruments nearly as large as the Earth's diameter.

Right now, the world's largest telescope is on the Canary Islands. Its mirror is just over 30 feet in diameter. That's good, but what's exciting is an attached instrument that only cost $3.2 million dollars (vs. a projected $6.5 billion, and likely much more, for JWST). A University of Florida press release (July 14, 2011) says this:

"GAINESVILLE, Fla. University of Florida astronomers are testing a new infrared camera this summer at the world's largest telescope that will allow researchers to look for planets outside our own solar system and better explore hidden black holes at the centers of galaxies.

The commissioning of CanariCam, a high-tech, heat-sensitive camera, started in late June at the site of the biggest optical-infrared telescope in the world. Gran Telescopio Canarias, or Grantecan, is located at 7,438 foot-altitude on the island of La Palma, in Spain's Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.

CanariCam, created by a team of astronomers and engineers led by UF astronomy professor Charles Telesco, had a cost of $3.2 million, financed by the Spanish government, and will allow researchers to peer through obscuring interstellar dust with unprecedented accuracy."

If I were an absolute emperor I would slow down JWST, but not kill it. This will allow NASA more time to develop needed deployment technology, and likely needed deeper space servicing capabilities. Some of the billions saved could be devoted to more cost-effective astronomy, and to the development of cybernetic comphumans who would journey as our ambassadors to distant orbs within our own solar system. Some savings would go to appease deficit hawks. In this scenario everybody wins.