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Surprisingly low number of observation proposals from astronomers for Webb telescope

In preparation for the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope in ’21, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that will operate it has begun accepting observation proposals from astronomers, and has apparently discovered that the number of proposals, dubbed the subscription rate, is surprisingly low.

The stats of the James Webb space telescope cycle 1 proposal round came in the other day. In summary: an over subscription rate of 1:4. A little less even.

There was immediate spin how the stats were a good thing. Enthusiasm from around the globe! So many investigators! But that does not change that the 1:4 oversubscription is a disappointment. If I were part of the project, this would and should worry me.

If they got exactly the right number of proposals to precisely use all of the telescope’s observation time, the subscription rate would be 1. An oversubscription rate of 1.4 seems good, but in truth it is tiny compared to Hubble and other space telescopes, and horrible considering the cost of Webb (almost $10 billion, 20x what it was originally budgeted).

The author at the link provides some technical reasons for the low interest, some of which are the fault of the Webb management team (such as a very complicated proposal process) and some that are beyond their control (the Wuhan panic). He also provides suggestions that might help.

Either way, the relatively low interest I think is rooted in Webb’s initial genesis. It was pushed by the cosmological community and its design thus optimized for studying the early universe. Other astronomical fields were pushed aside or given a lower priority so that the telescope does not serve them as well.

The result is that a lot of astronomers have been finding other more appropriate and already functioning telescopes to do their work, bypassing Webb entirely. They are probably also bypassing Webb because it seems foolish to spend the inordinate amount of time putting together a proposal for a telescope a decade behind schedule that carries an enormous risk of failure once it is launched.

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  • ” They are probably also bypassing Webb because it seems foolish to spend the inordinate amount of time putting together a proposal for a telescope a decade behind schedule that carries an enormous risk of failure once it is launched.”

    I believe that’s likely the driving factor for the low subscription rate: my thought when I read the headline. I expect the rate will increase when (if) the astronomical community gains confidence in the instrument.

    Webb was originally budgeted for $500 million? In some cultures, heads would literally roll.

  • Edward

    I am disappointed in the loss of the science that could have been done had we not spent that extra nine billion dollars (and the extra decade) on Webb. In addition, we are on track to spend too much money and time on WFIRST (now known as Roman). Other science telescopes, satellites, and probes could have been funded with the overspent money, and they could have been up and running years ago.

    One of these years, we are going to have to commercialize space telescopes, as companies are less tolerant of waste than Congress is. There once was a time when ground telescopes were often funded by private citizens. Now that so much science is being funded by government, we are getting much less science for our dollar.

    NASA is a fantastic resource, but Congress and various administrations have managed this resource very badly.

  • Diane Wilson

    “Wait and see” seems the only rational response, especially on remembering that Hubble had distorted vision until a corrective lens was delivered on the first servicing mission. It will be “a while” until the first servicing mission to Webb.

  • Diane Wilson wrote: ” It will be “a while” until the first servicing mission to Webb”

    Something of an understatement if NASA is involved, perhaps not if someone can make money doing it.

  • Ray Van Dune

    Starship will eventually have the legs to reach Webb, but it is. debatable whether such an instrument at the screaming bleeding edge of technology is repairable at any realistic cost. It is located so far from Earth because it is so incredibly fragile and sensitive.

  • john hare

    @ Ray Van Dune,

    Fragile and sensitive I can see. How can a decade(s?) old design be screaming bleeding edge when it should be wearing antique plates on launch?

  • Lee Stevenson

    I can only agree with all the comments here…. The lack of proposals can only be down to an abundance of “I’ll believe it when I see it”. It’s unfortunate, but after all the delays and problems before the thing even leaves the ground, and given the history of flagship space telescope missions working as planned at first try, even as a layman I am skeptical about the chance of the thing even working. I hope I am wrong, and if everything goes according to plan, there is no doubt the Webb will be able to do some amazing science and return pretty pictures as good as Hubble, (even if in different wavelengths), but I wouldn’t be betting my PHD thesis on any data returned.

  • Ray Van Dune

    john hare – “How can a decade(s?) old design be screaming bleeding edge when it should be wearing antique plates on launch?”

    John, I guess I put it into a space context in order to call it “bleeding edge”. For example, quantum computers exist that far exceed the sophistication of Webb, but they can function only within the confines of the most precisely controlled conditions achievable on Earth. At a Lagrange point they would be impossible to operate. You are correct that the technology of Webb is decades old, but this is a common phenomenon in space science – by the time a technology can be made robust enough to move from the lab into space via a wild rocket ride, it will have to have matured greatly. But in my mind it can still be bleeding edge “out there”.

  • MDN

    A few comments:

    First, the oversubscription was stated as 1:4 in the article, not 1.4 as in Bob’s commentary. That would imply I think a 4X oversubscription which is decent, but still trivial for such an incredibly unique resource. I’m sure the expectation was they’d be wading in proposals like Hubble which for much of its life ran at like a 100X kind of number.

    That said, Webb will study a new part of the spectrum with unrivaled sensitivity, and I’m quite sure (presuming it works) that the proposed studies will yield incredibly useful new insight as I’m certain that among those in hand are some that are very well considered.

    Second, with regard to bleeding edge I think the term is quite appropriate. The materials science and mechanical design and assembly tech in this instrument are simply mind boggling. The mirror segments for instance are ground to tolerances typical of semiconductor manufacturing, not mechanical components that are physically machined. As a manufacturing engineer who works in the semiconductor business color me impressed. And the fact that this thing will launch folded up through a bumpy 3+G 10 minute ride to orbit, and then play transformer to become an operating telescope with all of the components precisely assembled, really IS bleeding edge.

    None if this is to say this has been a wise investment, as $10B is a lot even in these demented days of lunatic spending. But for sure Webb has developed some incredible technology.

  • LocalFluff

    Webb won’t observe the early universe. It will be launched too late for that. :-)
    Horrible new year to you all!

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