James Webb Space Telescope's primary mirror is ready to go!

By Phil Plait | August 20, 2012 6:30 am

The James Webb Space Telescope – NASA’s successor to Hubble – recently reached a pretty big milestone: all of the segments of its primary mirror have completed construction, and are ready to be handed over to NASA.

JWST isn’t your average ‘scope. Instead of a single, monolithic mirror, it will have 18 hexagonal segments that will fit together, working as a unit to focus infrared light from distant astronomical objects. Each segment is about 1.5 meters across, and will have actuators behind them (think of them as very accurately tunable pistons) to control exactly how the submirrors are aimed. On the front, each mirror is coated in a very thin layer of gold, which is an excellent reflector of IR light.

The mirrors were made at the Ball Aerospace facilities in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Ball threw a celebration to mark the mirrors’ completion, and invited a few press folks along. That included me! We went on a tour, and saw one of the mirrors – it was in a "clean room" to keep dust and other contaminants out. But we could see it through a door… and here it is:

Yes, that’s me reflected in one of JWST’s flight mirrors! That was pretty cool. [Click to embiggen.]

Looking a picture of a mirror can be difficult when you’re trying to see the mirror itself. Here’s another shot that makes it more obvious.

The mirrors is tilted up, and the dark band running through it is the reflection of the top of the stand it’s mounted in. Their mirror itself is the gold hexagon. I got a good look at it, and it’s no small thing for me to say its the cleanest mirror I’ve ever seen. I’ve been around a few ‘scopes in my time and their mirrors always have some schmutz on them. This had none.

The figure of each mirror (the technical term for the shape of the surface) is incredibly accurate: the bumps in the surface are on average smaller than 25 nanometers. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter… to give you an idea of how small this is, a typical human hair is 400 times thicker than the deformities in the mirror. As one person mentioned to me while we were gawking at the facilities, if a bacterium fell on the surface, it would far and away be the biggest thing on the mirror.

So yeah, these things are smooooth.

The mirrors need to be this smooth to accurately reflect light. Any nonconformity would scatter light a little bit, messing up the telescope’s resolution. I’ll add that mirrors like this – the size they are, made of beryllium, figured to this accuracy – have never been accomplished before. And that’s only part of it, since of course all 18 mirrors must act as one once JWST is in orbit.

We were shown a room with the tanks containing the completed mirrors, laid out on the floor in the same configuration they’ll be in the telescope itself:

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White House asks for brutal planetary NASA budget cuts

By Phil Plait | February 13, 2012 2:09 pm

The White House has released its Presidential budget request for fiscal year 2013 today, including the budget for NASA, and as usual there is some good news and some bad. But the good news is tepid, and the bad news is, well, pretty damn bad. I can lay some of this blame at NASA’s feet — a long history of being over budget and behind schedule looms large — but also at the President himself. Cutting NASA’s budget at all is, simply, dumb. I know we’re in an economic crisis (though there are indications it’s getting better), but there are hugely larger targets than NASA. If this budget goes through Congress as is, it will mean the end of a lot of NASA projects and future missions.

The budget

The President’s FY13 budget for NASA is $17.7 billion in total. This is marginally less than last year. In most cases, the budget for science is stable, with a lot of missions getting modest increases. After perusing the individual budgets, it looks to me that most missions that are getting reductions are either ones that have been up a while and are winding down, ones near launch that are built and ready to go and therefore costs are smaller than during development, or ones that have had launch delays (due to tech issues with the launch systems).

Overall, astrophysics, Earth science, and Heliophysics (Sun studies) did OK. Again, some individual missions got increases and some decreases, but in general the budgets are stable. Funding for commercial spaceflight got a massive increase, more than doubling last year’s $400M budget. I’m all for that, as of course is the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. I’ve been vocal about that, and I think handing off launch and other capabilities to commercial ventures is a good way for NASA to save money in the long run.

Some cuts didn’t make sense to me. Education, for example, drops from $136M to $100M. Why? That money funds a vast amount of educational outreach — and I should know; I was funded by this for several years when I was at Sonoma State University creating educational materials for various NASA satellites. That funding does a huge amount of good for schoolkids, and cutting it is a mistake.

And it gets worse. A lot worse.

The bad news for Mars

However, planetary exploration has gotten creamed. Its budget overall drops from $1.5 billion to $1.2, a very deep cut that doesn’t just threaten but destroys near-future Mars exploration as well as future big grand missions to the outer planets in the tradition of Voyager, Cassini, and others.

There’s no easy way to say this: these cuts are devastating. The President’s request for just Mars exploration is $361 million, a crippling $226M drop in funding over the FY12 estimate, a 38.5% cut.

Read that again: a 38.5% cut. This will effectively halt the new exploration of Mars. It means pulling out of planning the ExoMars mission with the European Space Agency — effectively cancelling the mission, which will not make the Europeans happy — and also halting planning on a 2016 mission. There is still funding for the MAVEN mission scheduled for launch next year, but at reduced levels.

In my opinion, part of this is the fault of NASA: Curiosity, the rover on its way to Mars right now, was well over budget. Even after all these years, NASA still has a hard time getting budgets right, which is frustrating. However, this particular cut in the budget is madness. It was fought mightily by NASA, but the Office of Management and Budget apparently ignored all the advice from scientists and managers at NASA, cutting the program anyway. Ed Weiler, who was the head of the NASA Science Mission directorate, quit in protest over these cuts. I’ve had my disagreements with Ed on budget specifics over the years, but he has been a big defender of NASA from government cuts. For him to quit over this is a pretty strong indicator of how bad it is. Read that link to get all the details; but it’s not a happy story.

Bill Nye, speaking on behalf of The Planetary Society, says it best:

The priorities reflected in this budget would take us down the wrong path. Science is the part of NASA that’s actually conducting interesting and scientifically important missions. Spacecraft sent to Mars, Saturn, Mercury, the Moon, comets, and asteroids have been making incredible discoveries, with more to come from recent launches to Jupiter, the Moon, and Mars. The country needs more of these robotic space exploration missions, not less.

He’s right. The US has had an incredibly strong Mars program which has returned amazing science, as well as garnered enthusiastic public support. No other country has been able to do as well getting to Mars as we have. Of all the pieces of NASA to cut, this should be the very last one to see a reduction! It’s maddening, bizarre, and simply dumb.

What cost JWST and Curiosity?

NASA chief Charles Bolden tried to spin all this positively, but I have a hard time seeing it that way. And it’s hard to see how James Webb Space Telescope did not have an impact here. JWST is getting a large $109M (21%) increase as it gets nearer to completion. My thoughts on this are on record, for example here, here, and here. Basically, this mission on its own is taking the lion’s share a big chunk of NASA’s science funding, and if NASA’s overall budget remains stable JWST must perforce siphon money from other missions. Administrator Bolden wouldn’t specify what part of the budget would get cut to accommodate JWST, but given the massive slashing of Mars funding, well. That seems clear enough. [Update: It has been pointed out to me that the increase in JWST’s budget is smaller than what was taken from Mars. True, but as I pointed out last year, an additional $500+ million was recently given to JWST. I was considering that as well when I wrote the above paragraph.]

At some level the Mars rover Curiosity, currently on its way to Mars, must have played a role here too. It was also overbudget, though by a smaller total amount than JWST. But its impact has been significant.

I’ll note that I think JWST is far enough along to make sure it gets finished and launched, but the funding for it should be added to NASA’s budget, not subtracted from other places. I’m not happy with the way JWST was handled (the amount it’s over budget is staggering to say the least) and NASA really needs to gets its head in the game when it comes to figuring this stuff out.

But the thing is, we shouldn’t even have to make these choices. We shouldn’t have to choose between one ground-breaking scientific mission and another. The reason we do is because NASA’s budget is so small in the first place. It really speaks volumes about where science and exploration stand as an American value.

The next step

Mind you, this budget is not set in stone. This is simply the President’s request, which then goes to Congress. Over the past few years, Obama’s request has been for increases, with Congress threatening to cut it. Now, however, this budget comes pre-cut to Congress. The news isn’t all bad, though: some members of Congress have said this budget is not satisfactory (like Adam Schiff (D-Pasadena), whose district includes JPL), and will fight to make it better. The Planetary Society will be rallying its members to talk to their Congress critters and increase NASA’s slice for science from 27.5% to a solid 30%, enough to re-fund Mars exploration.

My opinion hasn’t really changed in years. NASA is a tiny, tiny part of the federal budget, far less than 1%. There are other places where money can be found, other places where cuts make more sense.

I’ve made this analogy before: if you have a hard drive full of 4 Gb movie files, you don’t make room by deleting 100kB text files! You go after the big targets, which is far more efficient. Reducing NASA’s budget for Mars exploration frees up 0.01% of the federal budget. That’s it. One ten-thousandth of what we spend overall, a hundredth of a penny for every dollar.

What does that mean in more understandable terms? Over the past few years, the rate of money spent in Afghanistan and Iraq is about 20 million dollars per hour. In other words, the amount of money being cut from Mars exploration is equal to what we were spending on the War on Terror in just 15 hours.

You might want to read that again. For the cost of less than a single day on the War on Terror, we could have a robust and far-reaching program to explore Mars, look for signs of life on another planet, increase our overall science knowledge, and inspire a future generation of kids.

Our priorities on national spending could use some major overhauling. Science is the future. Our economy depends on many things, but science, engineering, and technology represent a huge portion of its support.

It’s simple: cutting back on science is cutting our future’s throat. And this budget is reaching for the knife.

So I’m reaching for my keyboard. I’ll be contacting my Senators and Representative. If you’re an American citizen, I suggest you do the same.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics, Top Post

NASA's budget: JWST saved, but not much good news

By Phil Plait | November 21, 2011 11:00 am

A few days ago, the US House and Senate compromised on a (partial) federal budget, and President Obama signed it into reality. Among many other things, NASA’s budget was in there. Congress has posted an overview of the bill, which I recommend perusing. Space News has an excellent overview of the budget, as does The Planetary Society blog.

The big picture: NASA will get a total of $17.8 billion for fiscal year 2012, which is about $600M less than last year, and over $900M less than what President Obama wanted.


But totals aren’t necessarily as important as specifics. What are the details?

James Webb Space Telescope

As you may recall, the House wanted to ax the James Webb Space Telescope, literally giving it 0 dollars. The Senate wanted to save it. The new funding just passed gives NASA’s Science Directorate a total of $5.1 billion, which is an increase over last year by about $150 million. That sounds great, but this total includes $530 million for JWST to keep it going.

I’m glad that the project won’t be canceled, but I’m very concerned about the source of that money. I can do that math. All things being equal, a $150M increase with $530M dedicated to JWST means NASA will have to cut other programs to the tune of $380 million. The Congressional summary even says this explicitly:

The agreement accommodates cost growth in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) by making commensurate reductions in other programs, and institutes several new oversight measures for JWST’s continuing development.

[Emphasis mine.]
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

Our Future in Space – panel at TAM 9

By Phil Plait | October 20, 2011 12:26 pm

In July 2011, at the JREF’s TAM 9 meeting in Las Vegas, I moderated a panel discussing the future of space exploration. On that panel were some familiar faces: Bill Nye (the Science Guy), astronomers Neil Tyson and Pamela Gay, and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss. All of us have, ah, some experience talking to the public about matters spacey, so I knew it would be a fun panel to moderate.

I had no idea. The video of the panel has been made available by the JREF, so you can see it for yourself! I’ve embedded it below. It’s an hour long, but I think you’ll find it absolutely worth your time to watch all the way through. A lot of people came up to me afterwards and said it was the best panel at the meeting, and one of the best we’ve ever had at TAM! As a participant, modesty forbids me from saying more, but then, who am I to disagree?

It was a rollicking discussion, and very interesting. Neil was in rare form, and I think my favorite moment was when Pamela was making a point, and Neil jumped in to give an opinion… and Pamela held up a finger and "shusshed" him! It was extremely funny, especially when Neil got this, "OK, fine, you got me" expression on his face. After the panel, Neil was signing books, and I got Pamela to sit down next to him and recreate the moment:

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Where will JWST's money come from?

By Phil Plait | October 3, 2011 2:00 pm

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the successor to Hubble. Over budget and behind schedule, it’s in serious trouble. The House side of Congress essentially canceled it in their version of the Federal budget, but in the Senate version they put enough money in the budget to keep JWST alive. The two different budget versions will have to be reconciled before they go to Obama to sign. As I said in that article above, I wasn’t clear on where the money the Senate put in the budget was going to come from.

I’m not the only one: Frank Wolf (R-VA), who is chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee overseeing JWST’s budget (through NASA), has publicly asked the same question. As I read this, he is doubling-down on the House threat to cancel JWST:

For us to make a truly informed decision that takes into account both the value of JWST and the value of opportunities that may be precluded by the JWST replan, we must have the [budget] offset information. If such information is not provided by the time that conference negotiations begin, I will consider that to be an indication that JWST is no higher in priority than any other existing or planned NASA activity.

In other words, he wants to know what other programs will be cut to fund JWST. This information was not in the press release by the Senate when they announced they were funding the observatory, and it’s critical. Will NASA have to take this blow, or will it come from outside NASA, from other agencies or departments?

I have long supported JWST — I was marginally involved with the mission back when it was still unnamed and the instruments hadn’t even been proposed yet — but that support is contingent on the idea that it will be built with minimal impact to other important (I dare say vital) NASA missions. My fervent desire is for NASA to get enough money to fund everything they are doing and want to do; we’re talking exploration of our Universe here, something I have in one way or another dedicated my life to supporting. But that sometimes means making hard decisions, and we’re facing one right now.

Republicans hold the House majority, and they are in turn being pushed by the Tea Party, who want to cut huge amounts of government spending (well beyond what’s safe or wise, in my opinion). In that sort of environment, the odds that NASA will actually get more money seem slim. And that means JWST, which is a huge chunk of NASA’s budget, is in a very precarious position.

The House and Senate will have to hammer out their reconciliation very soon, and I’m hoping the Senate will have more details on where this money to fund JWST will come from. With other critical government expenditures facing the ax, there’s going to have to be some very serious negotiations over very serious matters. Which side of the line will JWST fall?

Image credit: NASA

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The Senate has “saved” JWST? Hang on a sec, folks…
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Hubble’s successor: doomed or saved?
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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Piece of mind, Politics

The Senate has "saved" JWST? Hang on a sec, folks…

By Phil Plait | September 15, 2011 8:36 am

Yesterday, the Senate subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, and Science — the group that initially sets the budget for NASA, among other agencies — issued a press release stating that they had produced a draft bill for the fiscal year 2012 appropriations. In the section on NASA, this release stated simply:

The bill provides funds to enable a 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

That sounds great, but what does it mean? A lot of people (judging from reading some blogs, and the tweets and emails I got) seem to think this means JWST is saved and all is well. I’m not so sure. What the press release doesn’t say is where that money will come from. Does this statement mean that the Senate is proposing extra money go to NASA to make sure JWST doesn’t eat into other missions, a scenario that is very likely if that money isn’t found, but instead comes from inside NASA’s budget? I have to wonder, because another statement in the press release says:

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is funded at $17.9 billion, a reduction of $509 million or 2.8 percent from the FY2011 enacted level.

I’m never a fan of reducing NASA’s budget, but this is actually less of a loss than I was expecting, so in a sense that’s good to hear. But, again, I must point out that if NASA has less money, how can they afford to finish, launch, and maintain JWST? Especially when they just yesterday announced the design of the new heavy-lift launch system that will, if it goes ahead, become NASA’s main (and most expensive) project?

We need to see the budget breakdown to understand this, but the Senate subcommittee press release is maddeningly vague. Another press release by Senator Mikluski, head of the subcommittee, said:

The bill includes… $5.1 billion for National Aeronautics and Space Administration Science, which includes the full $530 million needed for the James Webb Space Telescope to achieve a 2018 launch.

I’m still not clear on where that $530 million comes from, though; inside or outside NASA. $5.1 billion is more than the FY11 budget (PDF), which is a good sign, but it’s not $530 million more, so unless I’m missing something it looks like the extra money has to come from inside NASA. So on the surface it appears that JWST might be saved in the bill, but it also sounds like it may be at the expense of other missions which might have to take a hit to fund JWST. Until we see the actual bill — which has not yet been released to the public — we can’t be sure.

Apparently there will be more detailed news coming from the Senate possibly later today, and until then I will reserve judgment. Perhaps all is well, and perhaps not. I don’t like basing conclusions on press releases, and hopefully the bill itself will clear this up. I only point all this out because I don’t want to see people saying JWST is saved and everything’s great until we get the actual proof.

Remember too, that this is just a proposed budget. The Senate must vote on it, and then it has to be reconciled with the House bill, and then the President has to sign it. There’s still a very long way to go here.

[UPDATE: Nature News blog makes a very similar point in a post on this.]

Related posts:
The watershed moment for JWST
Hubble’s successor, doomed or saved?
Congress threatens America’s future in space
Congress puts NASA and JWST on the chopping block

CATEGORIZED UNDER: NASA, Piece of mind, Politics
MORE ABOUT: Congress, JWST, Senate

Hubble Gotchu 2

By Phil Plait | August 6, 2010 7:00 am

I’m a Craig Ferguson man, truth be told, but I have to give Jimmy Fallon major props for devoting major time to Milky J this week.

C’mon, you remember Milky J: he’s the Hubble Gotchu guy. He was on Fallon’s show again this week, but this time got some bad news: Hubble will be replaced with the bigger James Webb Space Telescope.

What ensued was simply made of win:

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JWST shade in the made

By Phil Plait | March 4, 2010 8:00 am

The James Webb Space Telescope is NASA’s successor to Hubble. Mind you, it’s not a replacement: JWST will see in the infrared, peering deeper into the Universe with its ginormous 6 meter unfoldable mirror than Hubble can.

But that infrared part is important. Objects that are warm give off IR light, and if you don’t cool your telescope, it’ll glow in the wavelengths you’re trying to see. It would be like having a flashlight shining down your ‘scope!

So JWST has to be cooled, and since it’ll be in a spot in space where the Sun shines 24/7 (the so-called L2 point, where the Sun’s and Earth’s gravity balances), it basically needs a sunshade. And also since the ‘scope is pretty big, the shade itself has to be sizable.

What engineers came up with is a multi-layered blanket of material that will sit "underneath" the telescope, blocking the sunlight and passively cooling the whole thing. The shade will be pretty big, about the size of a tennis court! To make sure it works, they created 1/3 scale model of the actual shade. This diminutive has been built, and is now undergoing tests at Goddard Space Flight Center.


[Click to deployenate]

Cool! Um. Literally.

You can also keep up with the construction of JWST using a webcam mounted in the clean room. I remember that room well; though I never got in I used to watch them work on Hubble cameras there.

Also, to give you an idea of just how big JWST will be… In 2007, I was at an astronomy meeting where a frakkin’ full-scale JWST model made an appearance. Here’s a video I made about it:

I did my best with this video considering the day before I was dying from a norovirus. Man, I love Seattle, but that was a rough week.

Anyway, JWST is still planning a 2014 launch. If you like Hubble images, JWST will blow you away. Just the galaxy shots it will produce will be spectacular beyond compare. And the deep field images will go much farther than Hubble can, if you can imagine that! JWST is a revolution in astronomy waiting to happen, every bit as much as Hubble was. Let’s hope these tests go well, and we can get that bird flying.


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