Martin Elvis an astrophysicist recently took to the internet to hopefully spread word to the public and those in the scientific community about a pressing matter. He claims the high costs of ‘flagship’ missions are keeping other important and crucial missions stuck on the ‘drawing board.’
He says he is worried because the golden age we have been in seems to be coming to an end. Sure, no golden age lasts forever but we are putting an end to this one far too soon. There seems to be good reason behind what he is saying.
Elvis wrote in Scientific American as follows:
Our early successes came from looking through new windows across a vast range of wavelengths invisible to the naked eye. The first radio, X-ray, ultraviolet and infrared telescopes were small, but everything we saw through them was new and mysterious. The next generation of telescopes leaped forward in capabilities, leading to the discoveries of neutron stars, black holes, radiation left over from the big bang, dark matter, dark energy, dark energy, exoplanets … the list goes on.
But this greater power came at a cost—literally since each new generation of telescopes carried a price tag several times higher than that of the one before. Today, a single telescope can now take almost a full decade’s worth of NASA’s budget for “Big Astronomy.” The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), now scheduled for launch next year, takes the prize at about $8 billion.
The glory of our golden age has been that we can access the whole electromagnetic spectrum at the same time. The discovery of gravitational waves from the merger of two neutron stars is a perfect example: ground-based detectors spotted these ripples in spacetime, but follow-up observations with gamma-ray, X-ray and visible-light telescopes gave us a far more complete understanding of how the event unfolded. Ideally, we need several comparably sensitive “flagship” telescopes, on a par with JWST, and they need to be flying at the same time.
Yet such flagships are only designed to last about five years (although that can often be stretched to 10). When the infrared-sensitive JWST flies, it will be 10 to 100 times more powerful than its predecessors, the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes. But if new flagships cost as much as JWST, it will be a decade before even one can be launched. By that time JWST itself will likely be on its last legs. So every discovery made by the Webb telescope will take over a decade to follow up. By then, we’ll have forgotten what it was that we wanted to know in the first place. Advances in astronomy will slow to a snail’s pace.
Elvis says that the way we respond to crises like this make a huge difference in how things go down. He noted that we do not have to simply accept this. We can respond in a different manner and change the outcome. He believes a new program needs to be put in place and it should be one requiring multiple new missions. You can read his full article by clicking here or in the video below. What do you think about all of this?
Featured image via Science Festival