Shutdown takes toll on space telescope programs

Operations of the Hubble Space Telescope could be compromised by the government shutdown, and the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, Hubble's successor, could be delayed. That's according to Meg Urry, the Israel Munson professor of physics and astronomy at Yale University and director of the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, writing at CNN.com.

She notes that an institute under contract to NASA can use existing resources to continue operating the Hubble, but if a problem occurs, the telescope will be locked in safe mode until government employees can return to work and restore operations. She expalins that Hubble use costs of up to $25,000 per hour indicate that a two-week shutdown could waste up to $8 million in taxpayer investment.

Urry adds, “Frankly, the loss to science is far greater. Each year thousands of astronomers from around the world compete to decide where Hubble will point…. Special science panels spend weeks setting priorities for the most important proposed science investigations. For every 10 hours of observing time astronomers want to use, only 1 hour is eventually approved. That means each week the government is shut down could cost dozens to hundreds of critical astronomical observations.”

As for the James Webb Space Telescope, she says it was undergoing tests at the Goddard Space Flight Center at extremely cold temperatures. With the government shut down, the testing has to wait. “If the shutdown lasts more than a few weeks,” she writes, “the JWST instrument module will have to be warmed up, probably pushing the launch date forward by a few months and raising the cost commensurately (about $1 million per day).”

Urry notes that NASA operates dozens of scientific spacecraft. The status of these spacecraft is unclear. As Urry notes, the NASA website simply says, “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available. We sincerely regret this inconvenience.”

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