Where Next?

WHAT’S NEW   Robert L. Park   Friday, 12 Nov 2010   Washington, DC

James Watson and Francis Crick stopped by the Eagle after leaving the 
Cavendish Lab on Saturday, February 28, 1953. Crick raised his glass and 
announced to all in the pub, "we have discovered the secret of life." And 
they had; they had unraveled the structure of DNA, the secret of life on 
our planet.  We share genes with every creature that crawls on Earth.  But 
could nature have found other ways on other worlds to solve the problem of 
life?  That would be an even greater discovery.  We have seen no hint of 
life on the other planets in our solar system, though we haven’t yet poked 
into every corner.  In any case, the search for life to which we are not 
related now reaches beyond the solar system to our region of the Milky Way 
galaxy.   The Third Millennium began with the discovery of planets orbiting 
stars other than our Sun.  We should be able to study these exoplanets with 
the world's greatest telescope, under development at NASA Goddard.  It’s 
100 times more powerful than the Hubble, but trouble looms.

The James Webb Space Telescope is in trouble. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who 
chairs the appropriations subcommitte that oversees NASA, clearly saw 
trouble back in June when she requested a review of the NASA budget. The 
review came in this week. The bottom line is that the James Webb space 
telescope is a year behind schedule and $200 million short.  Christopher 
Scolese, associate administrator of NASA, agreed with the report's 
findings, but could not see where they could find the money.  I should tell 
him the secret, NASA is bifurcated.  The NASA that’s the envy of the world, 
we might call "Exploration NASA," it’s a science agency that discovers 
exoplanets and puts rovers on Mars. Then there’s "Carnival NASA."  It 
arranges trips to space for people with too much disposable income, and 
looks for water on the Moon to make rocket fuel.

There are two obvious places to locate space observatories. They were 
identified by the great French-Italian mathematician Joseph Lagrange 237 
years ago, long before anyone even imagined space observatories. The 
Lagrange points mark positions where the combined gravitational pull of the 
two large masses (Earth and Sun) provides precisely the centripetal force 
required to rotate a relatively small mass (the observatory) with them.   
There are five Lagrange points in the Earth-Sun system. The first two are 
the important ones.  L-1 is about 1.5 million km from Earth on a line to 
the Sun.  It is the perfect position from which to monitor the Sun in one 
direction, and the full illuminated Earth in the other. It is thus ideally 
situated to monitor changes in Earth's albedo. Americans paid more than 
$100 million for an observatory at L-1, now called dscovr, the deep space 
climate observatory. For unexplained reasons it is sitting idle in a 
warehouse in Greenbelt, MD. The L-2 point is 1.5 million km from Earth on a 
line directly away from the Sun.  It is patiently waiting for the James 
Webb space telescope.

Opinions are the author's and not necessarily shared by the
University of Maryland, but they should be.

This article reprinted without permission. I didn't ask, but I should have. 

About Uisce úr

Though I am old with wandering Through hollow lands and hilly lands, I will find out where she has gone, And kiss her lips and take her hands; And walk among long dappled grass, And pluck till time and times are done, The silver apples of the moon, The golden apples of the sun.
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