Are you ready to take a journey to the edge of the universe? In this blog post, we’ll explore a revolutionary change in the way the James Webb Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope share their observations with the public. We’ll uncover the pros and cons of this move, and the centuries-old traditions that have come before it.
The James Webb Space Telescope is an $10 billion space telescope that has the potential to revolutionize astronomy. It has the power to provide us with incredible images of the universe, and the data it collects could lead to new discoveries. But the way the telescope’s observations are shared has been a topic of debate.
Currently, if an astronomer makes a proposal for where to point this telescope and the proposal is accepted, that scientist usually has a year of exclusive access to the resulting observations. Now, though, with the federal government pushing for more taxpayer-funded research to be made public instantly, telescope managers are pondering whether all of the data collected by JWST should be available to everyone right away. They’re considering a similar change for the venerable Hubble Space Telescope.
Proponents of open access say that sharing all of these space telescopes’ findings immediately could accelerate new discoveries and maximize the return from these powerful scientific assets. Critics, however, worry that this could exacerbate existing inequities in who gets to do astronomical research, and perhaps even result in shoddier science as scientists race to be first to find hidden gems in the data.
The traditional approach to sharing telescope data dates back centuries. Astronomers have turned their telescopes to the skies for hundreds of years and traditionally, they decided how and when to share their records of what they’d seen. With the advent of the space age, the data could be made widely available, all at once.
To balance the desire to maximize the return from these expensive, taxpayer-funded telescopes, scientists who won time on the telescope were given funding plus a certain period of exclusive access to their observations. This approach reflected a belief that a scientist deserved to have some time and financial support to develop the original idea which led to the observations in the first place.
But now, with the federal government pushing for more taxpayer-funded research to be made public instantly, telescope managers are pondering whether all of the data collected by JWST should be available to everyone right away. There’s strong feelings on both sides, and that’s driven by the fact that astronomy is a competitive field.
Any move to open access for these space telescopes’ data should come with the ability to request an exception, one that would give scientists more time to analyze their data and present their findings. Astronomers who have fewer advantages may be regularly be scooped by competitors, and the pressure to be first can be overwhelming.
Ultimately, the decision to move to immediate open access for these telescopes will be discussed among the astronomy community, and with NASA’s international partners. It’s a decision that could have a major impact on the science that gets done — and on who gets to do it.
Join us as we explore the pros and cons of open access to space telescope data, and the centuries-old tradition that has come before it.