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Smith, Culberson: Space telescopes promise a universe of discovery

Jan 18, 2018
In The News

When one first focuses on the Ultra Deep Field image, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2004, it appears to be just a photo of the night sky. Dots, stars at first glance, clutter the image, but a longer, closer look leads to wonder and amazement. The image, which is a piece of the sky about the size of a penny at arm’s length, shows that the “stars” are really galaxies, an estimated 10,000!

The Ultra Deep Field is one of many compelling images captured by the Hubble that inspired a generation of astronomers and astrophysicists at NASA and at research facilities across the world. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has a copy of the Ultra Deep Field hanging in our hearing room to continually remind us of the wonder of the universe.

Also inspiring is how researchers used the capabilities of Hubble and the other space telescopes, including the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Kepler Mission, to make breakthroughs in our observations of planets outside of our solar system, called exoplanets. To date, more than 3,500 have been identified.

Scientists have learned how to read data that Hubble, Spitzer and Kepler were collecting to make new discoveries. For example, Hubble now can deduce whether an exoplanet’s atmosphere contains water—something almost beyond the imagination of its designers in the 1980s.

These innovations are influencing the design and direction of the space telescopes NASA is preparing to launch in the coming years. The crown jewel of this next generation is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), with its 21-foot foldable mirror and sun shade the size of a tennis court. The expected launch is spring 2019.

Originally, JWST was intended to only observe faint stars and galaxies far off in the universe. Now its mission will include hunting for life-supporting elements in exoplanet atmospheres.

JWST’s time in service will be short compared to the 27-year-old Hubble. JWST is designed to operate for five and a half years with a goal of possibly lasting 10 years. Every time astronomers point JWST towards the cosmos, they need to make it count.

One of the new telescopes alongside JWST will be TESS, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which will observe more than 200,000 stars for the tell-tale signs of a planet passing in front of it, called transiting. TESS is expected to launch in 2018.

With the support of TESS, JWST’s team could be in the position to make the discovery of a lifetime: biomarkers of potential life in the atmosphere of a close exoplanet.

In our respective roles as chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee on Appropriations, we have consistently supported NASA’s space telescope programs and its core scientific mission. We worked to keep America a world leader in space exploration, even when the previous administration attempted to deprioritize NASA’s budget.

Support, however, also includes insistence on accountability. We’ll make sure Congress holds NASA responsible for any program delays or increases in cost. The agency must work tirelessly to stay on budget and schedule to keep their promises both to the researchers who are eager to analyze the data and to the American people whose tax dollars fund their missions.

When JWST, or any mission, is delayed, it has a domino effect on the missions following it, delaying their development and launches and inflating their costs. These consequences are felt across NASA and the scientific community.

Americans are excited and inspired by the discoveries made by our space telescopes and their potential for future discoveries. Congressional support for NASA’s missions is bipartisan and strong. And the Trump administration has demonstrated a renewed commitment to space exploration by reestablishing the National Space Council, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

With these present and future telescopes, the sky is waiting to reveal its mysteries.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is the chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) is the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies. 

115th Congress