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Seeing Stars

NASA manned space flight may be grounded, but Maryland space science is preparing for lift off

Photo: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI), License: N/A

NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI)

Hubble's 20th anniversary image shows a mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula.


Look through a drinking straw at the night sky, and you’ll see a tiny circle of black, perhaps a star or two if you’re lucky. It will seem rather unimpressive. But deep within those millimeters of darkness reside about 10,000 galaxies, some dating back almost to the beginning of the universe, and so faint that no Earth-bound telescope ever had a hope of glimpsing them.

What finally did glimpse them was not Earth-bound. It was the Hubble Space Telescope, floating 380 miles above Earth’s surface, and it took pictures, lots of them, resulting in an iconic composite image known as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, first released to astronomers in January 1996. The image, hailed as a landmark in humanity’s search for its origins, is just one scientific trophy in a long series from Hubble, and it was born right here, in Baltimore.

“The fact that the Hubble Space Telescope is run out of Baltimore is one of Baltimore’s best-kept secrets,” says Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which runs Hubble’s operations. “Some of the most revolutionary ideas in astrophysics will actually emerge from Baltimore. The Hubble has changed the way we think. We know how old the universe is for the very first time, we know how many galaxies there are for the very first time, we found this stuff called dark energy—that all happened from here. And I think people don’t realize that Baltimore actually is the planetary center of space science.”

U.S. space science is at a crossroads. For the last 30 years, its most visible and successful program has been the space shuttle—reusable craft that allowed astronauts to ferry back and forth between Earth and space. But with the final launch of the shuttle program on July 8, the United States now has no ability to send American astronauts into space on American spacecraft, leaving a vacuum into which Maryland has the expertise and experience to move.

Maryland boasts the highest concentration of astronomers in the country, 11 times the national average, and the second highest concentration of physicists. It’s home to an exhaustive list of long-running and successful organizations and businesses, government-funded and private, that contribute directly or indirectly to space and Earth science. In addition to STScI and the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) here in Baltimore—which, along with myriad other accomplishments, recently launched MESSENGER, the first spacecraft to enter Mercury’s orbit—the state boasts the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, which has sent instruments to every planet in the solar system and partners with STScI in running Hubble; cutting-edge space programs at universities such as Bowie State, Morgan State, and the University of Maryland’s College Park, Eastern Shore, and Baltimore County campuses; the U.S. Naval Research laboratory Center for Space Technology; the U.S. Naval Academy, which has graduated more U.S. astronauts than any other undergraduate institution; and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Silver Spring. Maryland’s space sector is currently contracted at $1.4 billion a year from NASA; it employs 15,061 people, totaling more than $1.6 billion in wages.

One of Maryland’s most visible projects is, of course, the Hubble. But it won’t be alive forever. The telescope owes its long operational life to the space shuttles; five times they’ve carried astronauts to perform repairs and replace fading, outdated equipment. Without them, its instruments will eventually fail; its batteries will die.

That’s why in 1995—only five years after Hubble launched—the institute began plans for its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), named after the NASA administrator who convinced President John F. Kennedy that NASA was about science, not just about sending men to the moon. The telescope, which is being developed at Goddard and will be controlled by STScI, is currently scheduled for launch sometime in 2018, hopefully before Hubble dies. Webb’s primary goals are the stuff of science fiction. Because it “sees” in the infrared, rather than in visible light, it will be able to probe 13.7 billion years into the past, to the time when the universe’s first galaxies—galaxies like ours—were forming. It can see through the dust and gas of nebulas and watch stars as they’re being born. And it can find water on other planets, if it exists, the first likely hint to astronomers of extrasolar life.

“Astronomy is on the cusp of changing the way we think,” Mountain says. “Probably as revolutionary as Copernicus and Darwin put together. Can you imagine what it would be like if we actually found life on another planet? We are on that verge.”

But with the country in a $1.5 trillion deficit, some members of Congress are balking at Webb’s $6.5 billion price tag. On July 6, the House Appropriations subcommittee that provides funding to NASA, among other science agencies, announced a bill that would reduce NASA’s budget by $1.6 billion from the $18.4 billion the agency had in fiscal 2011, including cutting all funding to the Webb. The project is “billions of dollars over budget and plagued by poor management,” the bill states. The cut to the Webb was approved by the Appropriations Committee on July 13, and now faces the House floor.

The bill has a long way to go, but with imminent cuts to its already strapped budget, the threatened loss of its champion project, and the end of its only operating human spaceflight program, NASA needs to carefully consider where it’s heading next. Wherever it heads—whichever planets we touch or stars we reach—Maryland is preparing to stay in the lead.

“At the height of the Apollo program, when they sent man to the moon, NASA’s budget was 4 or 5 percent of the national budget,” Mountain says. “Today it’s 0.4 percent. We don’t have those big goals anymore. So I think NASA is struggling a bit with its identity. On the other hand, we need people to innovate, think creatively. I think Maryland is not a bad place to start.”

 

The Hubble Space Telescope has been taking pictures of the farthest reaches of space and time for 21 years; its power has increased a hundredfold since its launch. It’s photographed a 13.2 billion-year-old galaxy, formed just 480 million years after the universe was born. It has its own IMAX 3D movie, narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, no less. And all of it’s come from the Muller Building, STScI’s home, an earthy-brown structure with stripes of black windows located in the woods behind Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus.

“It’s so amusing how difficult it is to get this idea out there,” Mountain says. “We have 10,000 astronomers around the world that use the telescope, and this is the fulcrum. They’re all used to coming here and it never crosses their minds that people don’t know that it’s run from Baltimore. Every time you see a picture, in the press, or on the classroom wall, or in the textbook, all these pictures come from this building.”

And not just from this building, but largely from one man. Zoltan Levay (the name’s Hungarian, if you’re wondering), whom Mountain calls “our very own Ansel Adams,” sits in room S214 on the first floor. A tall, mustached man with an even voice, Levay is the man responsible for making Hubble’s otherworldly pictures. Photos of Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars; images of far-off nebulae and clouds of dust; pictures of entire galaxies distant enough to fit into Hubble’s view—all of them originate from the computer sitting on his desk.

During a recent visit, Levay kindly pulls up a chair next to his and shows how the process works. In front of him are three monitors: There’s the usual mix of e-mail and web browsers, but one monitor sports an overwhelming array of open windows, most of them full of numbers and inscrutable icons. Levay pulls up a photo of two pink swirls resembling an exotic rose; in fact, it’s an image of two galaxies crashing into one another, their immense gravitational pulls warping their once-spiral shapes. The galaxies are 300 million light-years away.

“The bright guys are stars in our own galaxy,” Levay explains, pointing to white dots of light that appear huge in the image due their relative proximity to us. “The fainter guys”—he points to small smudges of color in the black sky—“are actually galaxies that are farther away. So we’re seeing an immense depth here. It’s like looking out the window and seeing trees right out there, and then the television tower and then even beyond that the clouds that are even farther away.”

Hubble takes these images with a camera, but it doesn’t work like your average point-and-shoot. It’s an intricate process, but essentially Hubble’s cameras take pictures through different filters; each filter captures a different wavelength, or color, of light, and each color allows astronomers to learn different things about what they’re looking at. The farther away, and therefore older, an object is, the more its light will be presented in the infrared—what astronomers call “red-shifting.”

Levay receives the raw image data through a convoluted process. Hubble sends them to a set of orbiting satellites; they travel from there to a location in New Mexico, through another set of satellites to Goddard for processing, and finally to room S214. He uses the data to add color to Hubble’s black-and-white images and forms them into a composite, adjusting contrast here, brightness there, until a final product emerges, one that is aesthetically pleasing and, more importantly, the most comprehensive representation of all the information contained in the numbers.

Ask Levay how many he’s made, and he almost laughs. He’s been here all of Hubble’s life—it’s a lot. But ask him if he has a favorite, and he has a quick answer. He pulls up a wildly abstract rectangle of exploding colors, greens and pinks and oranges swarming together so intensely as to almost lose their own identities. It’s a composite of 32 individual images—the 50-light-year span the image captures is so big that, at its distance of 7,500 light-years away, Hubble’s eye can take in only one 32nd of it. This, Levay says, is the Carina Nebula.

“This thing is as wide as 15 times the distance from the nearest star to us,” he says. “These pillars”—he motions toward columns of dust and gas at the upper right corner of the screen—“are huge, are light-years tall. So the distances and scales are just incomprehensible. That’s the neat thing about it to me. It gives people a sense of a different scale, instead of the scale that you’re used to. You have a sort of human scale or even the Earth scale, which you kind of understand—you can drive over it or fly over it—but this is a whole other, literally, a whole other dimension.”

He pauses, and then points to what looks like flecks of dirt on his screen or some kind of imperfection in the data processing.

“The smallest little feature, these tiny little black dots,” he says, “are bigger than our solar system.”

 

Levay is the man behind Hubble’s images, but he’s only one of more than 400 STScI employees responsible for selecting and implementing Hubble’s science programs, as well as overseeing education and outreach, a main priority at the institute. Hubble makes up 5 percent of NASA’s science budget; it’s responsible for 30 percent of its findings.

The concept of a telescope in space, one that didn’t have to peer through the haze of the atmosphere, was first envisioned by a Yale astronomer named Lyman Spitzer Jr. in 1946. It took almost 30 years, but by the 1970s, the scientific and political communities agreed that a space telescope could carry sufficient benefits to make it a worthy investment of resources and, of course, money. After determining that a university would make the best research partner, NASA launched a competition, which was eventually won by Johns Hopkins University, a relatively tiny long shot. (Being located near Goddard, while still an independent entity, was crucial.) On Jan. 30, 1981—just under 10 years before Hubble was launched into space—the university received a typed certificate honoring its success: “Sincerest congratulations to Johns Hopkins University in recognition of NASA designating JHU as site of the space telescope science institute, making Hopkins and Baltimore ‘the world capital of astronomy.’”

On May 23 of this year, the state of Maryland renewed that title by making an official commitment to the state’s space and Earth science sectors with the Department of Business and Economic Development’s (DBED) space science initiative, a 39-page document titled “Maryland: The Business of Space Science.” The initiative, modeled after a similar cyber-sector initiative released in January 2010, “seeks to increase the economic and innovation potential of Maryland’s space industry” through policy development and marketing of ideas. The initiative indicates plans to create a state space development authority and space-related business incubator. It also includes recommendations for space and Earth science, including to “Market Maryland as the Space Science State [italics in the original] for study, discovery and technology transfer” by highlighting the state’s skills at industry events and in publications and “[leveraging] Maryland’s congressional delegation and the Federal Facilities Advisory Board to advocate for space science and earth science missions to be retained by NASA in the face of budget cuts, overseen by NASA Goddard and managed in Maryland.”

Nationally, the timing for the release of the initiative is opportune, and intentional. During the Bush administration, the intended focus for the space program was human spaceflight: Get humans back to the moon, and then to Mars. But rockets cost money, and manned spaceflight means risks. After the 2009 Augustine report, an independent review of the White House’s planned space effort at the time, made recommendations to the Obama administration as it considered the trajectory of the U.S. space program, a new future emerged, particularly in two key areas: The space program would focus more on science and less on manned spaceflight, at least for now, and NASA would begin to incorporate work from the private sector, a move intended to bolster the space program while—hopefully—saving the ailing government money.

“The whole idea behind the initiative was looking at what was going on and then trying to match that to what was happening in the state,” says Patrick Tonui, program manager for security and IT at DBED, who worked on the report. “So, for example, looking at, in terms of this new emphasis on commercial launch activities, what does that mean for the state? Would we be losing jobs? Would we be gaining jobs? Were our companies in the state positioned to grow because of this? Were they losing out? And with those, how could we as the state help them to adjust and to keep growing?”

At this point, the initiative is merely a set of recommendations. But one of the strengths of the initiative, as STScI’s Matt Mountain sees it, is that the state recognized that Maryland’s strength lies in its space science, not in its contributions to manned spaceflight.

“There’s an opportunity because people are rethinking the future of NASA,” Mountain says. “They probably thought it was important that Maryland have a view on what the future of NASA is too, given Goddard is here, given there’s a lot of activity. . . . I think people felt it was time that we got our act together, because we’re going to have to be smart about what we do in the future.”

 

Maryland’s decision to invest in space science reflects the state’s view that science in general, and space science in particular, has benefits financial and practical, and also indefinable. Space science pushes boundaries, advocates say, and inspires new generations to do the same—as Hubble has for many. It’s the same argument that’s being made now by the many who are trying to save the James Webb from a sudden and early death.

No one is denying that the project’s path has been a troubled one. In 2010, Maryland’s Sen. Barbara Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, requested an independent review of the project’s progress. The report found that while the telescope was proceeding well technically, its predicted budget of $5.1 billion was off by at least $1.4 billion, and its target launch of June 2014 would have to be extended to at least September 2015, due largely to inefficient management.

Before John Grunsfeld took the job as deputy director of the institute 18 months ago, he had been an astronaut for 18 years. He’s flown on five missions, including the last three to service Hubble. He and his footage appear in the Hubble IMAX movie—his “home movies,” he calls them. So of course, he’s passionate about the James Webb. And he’s surprised—though not entirely—at the attempt to cut it. NASA’s expected to announce details of the project’s reorganization in the coming weeks in an effort to comply with the suggestions found in the report. Why the House Appropriations subcommittee didn’t wait to hear them before making its decision is something Grunsfeld would like to know.

“I think the committee is doing their due diligence,” he says. “The allocation that the subcommittee got was very low, and so they had to look across and say, OK, how are we going to cut this budget? . . . [James Webb] stood out as a project that’s in trouble. If we zero [it] out it sends a message to NASA that large programs need to be better managed. But is killing it the right thing to do for the country?”

There are quite a few people who say no. Mikulski’s one of them. She helped save the Hubble by fighting for the 2009 final servicing mission when NASA and the government were debating the financial responsibility of the move. Now she’s doing the same for Webb. Her office released a statement calling the decision “shortsighted and misguided” and vowed to fight for the project’s continuation. She’s been advocating on Twitter as @SenatorBarb with tweets like this, from July 7: “Just spoke to Cong. Hoyer on saving Webb Telescope. We’re fighting to save 2000 jobs today and science for tomorrow. #SaveJWST.”

A Facebook page supporting the telescope had 2,921 fans as of press time (disclosure: This writer is one of them), many of them from overseas, asking how they can help; a change.org petition had 2,865 signatures. (Only U.S. citizens can sign it.) The bill is being covered in national and international press, including The Guardian, the International Business Times, and The Vancouver Sun. Support is strong, and everywhere. A lot of people dig space.

But proponents of the bill say that now, with mind-boggling debt and the health care and education systems faltering, is not the time to be throwing money into the sky. “[G]iven this time of fiscal crisis,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Kentucky) wrote, “it is also important that Congress make tough decisions to cut programs where necessary to give priority to programs with broad national reach that have the most benefit to the American people.”

Grunsfeld disagrees, though he concedes that of course he disagrees—he’s an astronaut. But, he says, space science’s direct benefits are not only direct and measurable—CAT scans, for example, came from research in x-ray astronomy—they’re also intangible, and innumerable. And cutting a project like the James Webb destroys all those potential positives.

“I think the better context is, by backing off JWST now, it sends a message that Congress is basically giving space leadership in the U.S., and basic science research, the cement boots,” Grunsfeld says. “If we back off from a challenge like this it’s very unlikely that in the next 10 or 20 years the U.S. will embark on another science experiment like this. The rest of the world will continue to invest in technology and try to get answers to these fundamental questions about the universe and we won’t be a part of it.”

Maryland, though, will forge on. There are big things happening across the state: Maryland’s, and particularly Goddard’s, experience with servicing the Hubble in orbit places it in an excellent position to take the lead in the emerging satellite-servicing industry. A planned Maryland Science, Exploration, and Education Center, to be located at Goddard and aimed at reinvigorating the aging workforce in science, math, and engineering, is expected to bring 350,000 annual visitors and support a staff of 60. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, located in Virginia five miles south of the Maryland border and operated by Goddard, will begin unmanned cargo launches in 2012 as part of a NASA program to reach the International Space Station without the use of the space shuttles. A recent Salisbury University study found that Wallops, one of the few facilities licensed for commercial launches in the United States, brings $188.3 million and 2,341 jobs to Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore.

And there’s the Webb—if it survives.

Outside of its hoped-for benefits to the country, the world, and the human race, it could also bring a boost to STScI and Baltimore. Hubble is a partnership between Goddard and STScI: STScI picks the missions, Goddard controls the telescope. But when (or if) Webb launches, STScI will assume flight and control functions from Goddard, leading to a planned 100 additional hires at the institute.

Webb is a massive risk, and not just financially. Its mirrors are coated in gold, and it’s as big as a tennis court—so big that no spacecraft could carry it whole, and so, origami-like, it will be folded up in a rocket and expected to unfold, bit by tiny bit, on its own. When Hubble launched, one of its mirrors was warped by a fraction one-fiftieth the thickness of a human hair, which nonetheless made it useless. We sent up a shuttle to fix it. With no shuttles, and Webb literally on the dark side of the moon, we don’t have that option.

“That is always the risk,” Mountain says. “That’s one of the important things. Science should be taking risks. If the government’s going to fund anything it should fund things that you couldn’t do commercially. Taking the kind of risks that we take with the James Webb is exactly what the government should be doing. That’s where the innovation is, that we’re going to try to do this that nobody has ever done before. It’s purely knowledge, and inspiration, and that sense that you’re trying to reach, which is pretty good for the human species.”

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