AP Photo/John Raoux
Starting around 50 years ago, astronomy began a winning streak of amazing discoveries. We found the cosmic microwave radiation left over from the big bang back in the 1960s, for instance, and in recent years we have identified thousands of planets orbiting distant stars. But the good times may be about to stop rolling. There is reason to fear that astronomy is ending its long run of lifting the veil on cosmic wonders.
Our early successes came from looking through new windows across a vast range of wavelengths invisible to the naked eye. The first radio, x-ray, ultraviolet and infrared telescopes were small, but everything we saw through them was new and mysterious. The next generation of telescopes leaped forward in capabilities, leading to the discoveries of neutron stars, black holes, dark matter, dark energy — the list goes on.
But this greater power came at a cost. Each new generation of telescopes carried a price tag several times higher than that of the one before. Today a single telescope can now take almost a full decade’s worth of NASA’s budget for “big astronomy.” A case in point is the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for launch next year. Webb’s price tag ballooned from what was originally supposed to be just about $1 billion to nearly $9 billion, crowding out nearly everything else. Without other major missions to fall back on, the only response to technical problems with Webb was to keep throwing more money at them.
The glory of our golden age has been that we can access the entire electromagnetic spectrum at a single point in time, from various instruments. The discovery of gravitational waves from the merger …read more