What’s Another $7 Billion When You’re Exploring the Universe?

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- If it ever gets off the ground, the James Webb space telescope will be a scientific marvel for this century. With capabilities to see farther out in space — and further back in time — than the Hubble space telescope, it will be able to detect the very first galaxies coalescing out of the big bang more than 13 billion years ago. And it can collect the first detailed data on planets orbiting other stars, revealing, for example, whether they have atmospheres with water vapor, methane, carbon dioxide or oxygen.

If all had gone as planned, it would have gone up more than seven years ago and cost $1.6 billion, according to a news story in the journal Science. This week, it came to light that the cost has risen to $8.8 billion and the launch date has been pushed back to 2021. To make matters worse, Congress set a cost ceiling of $8 billion, which means the now more expensive project must be reauthorized. An independent panel has found scientists guilty of “excessive optimism.”

The delays, according to the panel, were caused by human errors, including faulty fasteners for a tennis-court-sized sun shield and an incorrect solvent in the fuel valves. But this is no easy project. The telescope’s mirror will have more than six times the area of the Hubble’s mirror. It will be geared to pick up light in the infrared part of the spectrum, and will be so sensitive that one of the project scientists claimed it could detect the infrared radiation emitted by a bumblebee on the moon.

The other underappreciated challenge is its remote location. Hubble was in low earth orbit, about 400 miles away. The Webb is headed for a special point in space called a Lagrange point, which is about a million miles away, much farther than the moon. It will orbit the sun while staying in the same alignment with the Earth, as if attached to us with a long stick.

Soon after the Hubble was launched in 1990, astronomers realized the mirror was incorrectly shaped — a human error that required human repair. Astronauts did a heroic job of fixing the telescope’s optics. That won’t be possible if something turns out to be flawed, faulty, mismeasured or out of whack on this project. But if the Webb telescope eventually gets to its million-mile perch and opens its mirror to the sky, people will forget about the cost and the snags, and remember it for expanding our universe.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has written for the Economist, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Psychology Today, Science and other publications. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.

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