Astronomy 2.0

Space News reports on the on-going struggle between science and politics.

NASA currently spends $1.5 billion, or about 9 percent of its total budget, on astronomy and astrophysics. But as the James Webb Space Telescope, the division’s largest project, begins to come down off its peak funding years and five smaller spacecraft leave the launch pad over the course of the next two years, NASA’s current projections show the division’s annual budget dipping to below $1.3 billion before starting to increase again about 2012.

Like usual, it’s a matter of setting priorities. Why should the government – read, the taxpayers – fund astronomy? That’s a legitimate question, and frankly, astronomers (as well as physicists, artists and useless academics in general) have been well able to provide legitimate answers to the question. At least, legitimate enough to convince those who control the purse strings to open the purse a little.

The Hubble Space Telescope has received wide public support by returning not just science, but pretty pictures for the money. Even at over $2 billion, it wasn’t a bad deal. Even the James Webb ST, at $4.5 billion, may be a good expenditure of public monies.

But Hubble is currently a crippled observatory, and has exceeded the (lower) estimates of it’s expected life time. Continuing its mission would require (and this has never been a secret) extensive and expensive repair missions. It is proper that the option to let the telescope die is placed on the list of national objectives, whose relative priority is decided by duly elected representatives after cautious and thoughtful deliberation.

Uh-Huh!

From reading the article I quoted above, I get the impression that astronomers tm think that there is no alternative to big dollar, government funded astronomy projects. Maybe the government should fund expensive orbiting, remotely controlled telescopes like the JWST and Spitzer and the other great observatories. But isn’t this nearly the same situation particle physicists found themselves in around the year 1993, when funding for the SuperConducting Super Collider (SCSC), a world-class atom smasher, was cut? The project was killed by congress. Not a good (or good enough) expenditure of public funds, they reasoned.

In the meantime, amateur astronomers are not only contributing to astronomy, but have the professionals nearly begging for their help. Amateurs currently play vital roles in both asteriod tracking efforts and extrasolar planet hunting. Amateurs are combing the depths of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey looking for – what ever is there.

In fact, they are looking for the things the professionals didn’t (or couldn’t) find funding for, or for which the pros didn’t even think to look.

I do believe that’s called Astronomy 2.0.

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