Scientists Warn Canceling WFIRST Telescope Could Cripple US Space Exploration

Thursday, 15 February 2018 - 10:21AM
Thursday, 15 February 2018 - 10:21AM
Scientists Warn Canceling WFIRST Telescope Could Cripple US Space Exploration
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Image credit: YouTube

Last year, when Donald Trump came to power, it was quickly announced that many government-backed scientific endeavors would receive reduced funding and that reviews would take place into planned NASA space missions.

Up on the chopping block is WFIRST (Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope), an enormous space telescope that has been described as NASA's new "flagship mission"; the focal point around which most of the space agency's work is expected to revolve during the 2020s as we explore dark matter and distant exoplanets.

Even before the current government decided that NASA was spending too much money on flight, WFIRST was suffering from scope creep. It turns out that if you tell a bunch of scientists that they're going to launch a generation-defining space mission, they're going to want to cram as many bells and whistles onto it as possible.

A review of the satellite's mission parameters has seen the goals of WFIRST severely reduced—the telescope's metaphorical spinning rims and personalized number plates have had to be scrapped, with the solemn warning issued implicitly that if NASA can't rein this behemoth in, there's a danger that the entire project could be canceled entirely.

Understandably, scientists are not happy—they argue that canceling WFIRST could see America's position at the front of the space race decline at a particularly inopportune moment.

According to Princeton University physicist David Spergel:

Opening quote
"I think it's a poor decision and an unnecessary one. I see it as abandoning U.S. leadership in space astronomy. Canada, Japan, the European Space Agency, France—they are all ready to partner with us and make contributions to the mission. They join in because they think this is something we'll do, because it's our top [decadal survey] priority."
Closing quote

There's an attitude among experts that NASA's work on WFIRST is a driving motivator for research around the world, and that if America pulls out of this work, then all other countries will also be left unable to learn more about the universe. Considering the improvements in space exploration technology in recent years, there's a lot that can be achieved if countries are willing to work together which can benefit everyone.

Certainly, there are wider issues to consider when axing funding for NASA missions. A lot of climate change data, for example, relies on satellites that have been put into orbit by America's space agency, and removing the funding for this research could leave us all with a worse understanding of the challenges that our planet currently face.

At the same time, there's another danger that canceling WFIRST could cause. America isn't the only country vying for a piece of the space pie, as other nations are increasingly pouring resources into setting up a solid presence among the stars.

There's a lot of money to be made from space travel, and many countries around the world are banking on big businesses that will form around moving cargo to and from orbit. Now is the wrong time, economically, for America to pull back its efforts in space.

If WFIRST is canceled, the world will be poorer for it from a knowledge perspective. As that's not normally enough of an incentive for the financially motivated among America's citizens, it's worth noting that the country will also literally be poorer if it doesn't remain as the driving force of the spaceship bandwagon at this moment in time.