Photo: Mirror Assembly for the James Webb Space Telescope (Courtesy NASA)
Those spectacular pictures of galaxies forming at a time very near the origin of the universe from the James Webb Space Telescope came at a pretty price: $9.7 billion, to be precise. It is fair to ask, “Is the Webb telescope project worth the price?”
The James Webb Space Telescope project began in 1996 with an expected launch in 2007 for a relatively low cost of $1 billion to $3.5 billion. But the project underwent a bewildering array of delays and unexpected scientific challenges. By the time the telescope was launched on Christmas Day 2021, the cost spiraled to nearly $10 billion. One journal referred to Webb as “the telescope that ate astronomy.”
To be fair, that price tag covers the entire lifetime of the project, and it has been partly shouldered by the European and Canadian space agencies as well as NASA. The telescope is scheduled to be operational for more than five years in space but has enough fuel to last more than 10 years, if all goes well.
In assessing whether we are getting our money’s worth, consider what we stand to gain beyond the stunning pictures of the cosmos as it existed 13 billion years ago. The primary mission of JWST is to better understand the life history of the universe. The universe is ever-expanding since its origin in the Big Bang, casting light from distant objects in reddish tones. Unlike the Hubble Telescope, the Webb is an infrared telescope, making it uniquely sensitive to deep red light and 100 times more powerful. Webb can see much deeper into space and farther back in time than any instrument ever invented on Earth.
JWST will show us galaxies as they were when the universe was less than a billion years old. It will show us galaxies colliding and merging and revealing their chemical secrets. We are going to look straight into black holes and their escaping materials. These are the sights that will help unravel the history of our universe. What price is that alone worth?
A secondary mission of the Webb telescope is to probe for an answer to the age-old question, “Are we alone in the universe?” Webb is already searching for Earth 2.0 — exoplanets with environments similar to Earth capable of sustaining life as we know it. JWST will examine the atmospheres of exoplanets beyond our solar system for oxygen or methane gases that signal living organisms. Though not likely, maybe Webb will find evidence of other sentient beings. JWST offers the best shot to date at such discoveries.
This new eye on the universe will test, challenge and develop the science of physics. Hundreds of years ago, the first telescopes revealed that the Earth is not the center of the universe. Today’s better understanding of how the universe works is what, for better or worse, brought us computers and cell phones. Who knows how Webb may retool human knowledge, but experience suggests it will most certainly affect our learning curve.
The James Webb Space Telescope project has enthralled the imaginations of people all over the globe. A recent online poll found that three in five Americans believe the Webb telescope has been a good investment. Only 13 percent of those polled thought it was a bad investment.
Most people were not even thinking about the price tag when the James Webb Space Telescope lit up our screens with remarkable detail of emerging stellar births and individual stars within the cosmic clouds of Carina Nebula, near the center of the universe. “Astonishment in the face of incredible beauty,” as one observer poetically described the image. And this is just a sneak preview of what is yet to come.
The Webb telescope is likely to change how we understand the universe, refine our knowledge of physics and cosmology, and rewrite our textbooks. Webb is offering our best chance yet to finally answer the question: “Are we alone?”
Even aside from the eventual scientific and economic spinoffs, simply better knowing our place in the universe cannot be measured in dollars. Yes, indeed, the James Webb Space Telescope is worth the price and so much more.