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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Astronomers Strangely Weep Because They're Only Getting One Multi-Billion Dollar Gift

Astronomers are howling over the fact that the government has announced that it will not be funding an infrared space telescope called WFIRST, which stands for Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope. Engaging in some pretty ridiculous hyperbole, cosmologist Ethan Siegel tells us that “canceling WFIRST will permanently ruin NASA.”

Based on how loud they are howling, you would think that the cancellation of the WFIRST telescope means that there will be no more government-funded telescopes for astronomers to make use of. But that is not true. In 2019 the government will deliver a gigantic gift to our astronomers: the James Webb Space Telescope. It will have a price tag of about 10 billion dollars.

Astronomers weeping about the cancellation of WFIRST are therefore like the daughter in the conversation below:

Daughter: You mean I'm not getting a Mercedes on my seventeenth birthday? You're so cruel!
Mother: But sweetie, next year it will be your sixteenth birthday, and on that birthday I will give you a shiny red Ferrari sports car.
Daughter: But I want the Ferrari and the Mercedes!

Part of the reason a telescope like the Hubble telescope was worthwhile is that it produced so many images showing what objects in distant space look like. But an infrared telescope won't show what distant objects in space look like. Such a telescope will show the infrared radiation from such an object. So the photos from WFIRST would look like those weird images that ghost hunters get when they photograph things with an infrared camera. Such a telescope is intrinsically less valuable than a project like the Hubble telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope. 

Infrared image of the Andromeda galaxy
Is there some lack of data for astronomers to analyze? Certainly not. Scientists in fields such as astronomy are already flooded with far too much data for them to ever fully analyze. Once the James Webb Space Telescope launches next year, astronomers will be double-drowning in data. Do they really need an additional space telescope so that they can be triple-drowning in data?

When I look at some of the statements astronomers have made protesting the cancellation of WFIRST, I see some pretty thin reasoning. Some of the astronomers are pointing out the WFIRST was on the “decadal survey” list of recommended projects. They're reasoning: “you can't cancel something on our decadal survey list!” But what is the decadal survey list? It's just a wish list. Putting an item on your wish list does not mean that someone else is obligated to give you that thing. A daughter or son is not entitled to receive all the things they list on their Christmas list.

Let us consider the average amount of money that an astronomer gets from the government, in money spent on space telescopes and grants. There are only about 10,000 professional astronomers in the United States. If you consider only the cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, and divide its cost over ten years, you get funding of about a billion dollars per year. That amounts to about $100,000 per astronomer per year.

It's hard to imagine how anyone blessed by such largess could complain. By comparison, the average Joe is lucky to get $5000 or $10000 in benefits from the government, from programs such as the SNAP program (“Food Stamps”) or Medicaid.