The James Webb Space Telescope is in trouble.
On July 13 2011, a Wednesday, the Appropriations Committee concerning Commerce, Justice, and Science of the United States House of Representatives (a small body inside the overall House) voted to include or exclude federal funding for several areas of life and business in the United States of America. They were preparing a bill that would affect the budget of the Federal Government, which will later be voted on in the overall House of Reps. One the elements chosen NOT to receive additional funding for this bill was the James Webb Space Telescope. It was the Adam Schiff amendment to FY 2012 funding that was rejected (Congressman Schiff is the representative of California's 29th district - home of NASA's JPL). Of all the things that happen in Congress, you may ask, why does this particular telescope matter above all the things that our Congress must worry about?
The JWST is important because it will go where no scientific instrument has gone before. Unlike the telescope before it, the Hubble, JWST will be able to see largley and extensively in the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This will allow it to peer into areas of the Universe that other telescopes cannot penetrate. For example:
Infrared observation will allow us to look with new eyes at cloudy portions of our galaxy and the universe overall to study what was once hidden to us by conventional telescope viewing. Also, the JWST will allow us to see "cooler" objects in the heavens. Cooler objects, a relative term, emit radiation primarily in the infrared. So, the JWST will give us brand new data on, as wikipedia indicates "the clouds of the interstellar medium, the "failed stars" called brown dwarfs, planets both in our own and other solar systems, and comets and Kuiper belt objects" (from wikipedia article).
Importantly, the technological innovations on board the JWST and the placement of the Telescope at the L2 position is what gives the JWST the ability to see the nature of not just brown dwarfs and comets, but also the expanding universe (famously called Red Shift), which gives off clues in the infrared.
Among those technological innovations, JWST will have a mirror that is comprised of 18 individual hexagonal mirrors and will be nearly 7 times larger than the mirror of its famous predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope. This mirror is not an ordinary mirror, but a highly complex system designed to adjust in order to perfect an incoming image. JWST will also have fancy infrared tools that will examine light at all areas of the infrared as well as a way to examine that light using spectroscopy (to understand what the objects are made of using the light wavelenghts those objects give off).
The technological innovations described above additionally allow JWST to study some of the new extrasolar planets we've started discovering over the last few years, as well as see all the way back in time to the first few hundred million years after the beginning of the universe and watch galaxies and solar systems form!. JWST is THE next step in astronomy and science (as Micheal S. Turner described on NPR's Science Friday Broadcast..."JWST was a Quantum Leap above the Hubble Space Telescope in every dimension"). Hubble, while still useful, will not last forever and cannot provide us with the kind of data that JWST can. It will allow us see farther, greater, better and help us answer those questions that humanity must understand if we are to survive...what is the universe? How did it form? What are the origins of life? Does life exist elsewhere? JWST will be THE flagship telescope for many years to come and will be used to provide answers for these questions about the fundamentals of the Universe as well as answers to questions we haven't thought up yet.
In addition to the hard science, this telescope will provide jobs for American science and research. If the JWST isn't launched, this will likely leave the United States dependent on other nations for its understanding of our place in the universe much like the famous issue with the Superconducting Super Collider (now the European Large Hadron Collider leads in this science research). Like the Hubble Space Telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope will be the pride of the United States, and an example of how and why this great nation should do great things. We are not just another nation that can occassionally visit space...the United States of America is the Premier Space-Faring Nation! And we owe it to ourselves and our children to see the JWST to completion.
A thousand years from now, no one will remember our partisan politics, our ideology, our cities, or our fascination with television and texting...but they will remember our contribution to science because our children will build their future on it. The future humans of Earth, and hopefully other places, will look back at the United States of America as the one group of humans that finally got humanity off the 3rd rock from the sun and out into cosmos. The JWST is that next great leap that will make this future a reality.
If you are interested in learning more about the JWST and what you can do, please spend a few minutes and check out the following links. However you help the JWST, remember...the most important thing you can do IS CALL YOUR REPRESENTATIVES. Contact them by email and by phone, then get a friend to do the same.
The Facebook Page
The Online Petition
The Tumblr Page
Contact Your Representatives Here
NASA Plan for JWST (official)
NASA Chief to Congress: Save This Telescope
The Astroglia Blog
Discover Magazine on Why We Need JWST
Phil Plait (@BadAstronomer) of Discover Magazine on Saving JWST
Wikipedia Entry for JWST
What the James Webb Telescope Means by Ethan Seigel
The American Scientist Article on JWST Defunding
Huffington Post Article Discussing JWST
Attempt to Save JWST Underway (Aviation Week Article)
The JWST NASA Trailer
The 5 Awesomes About JWST
Save the JWST by oStarStuff (awesome!)
Pay attention to this blog for further details, news, and more contents about saving the James Webb Space Telescope.