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Government shutdown halts testing of instrument for James Webb Space Telescope



The testing of one of four instruments for a large-scale telescope was put on pause last week due to the federal government shutdown that began on Oct. 1.

George Rieke, a UA astronomy professor and science team leader working on the mid-infrared instrument of the James Webb Space Telescope, said his team had been preparing to test the instrument for almost three months. The mid-infrared instrument was halfway through tests when NASA employees were sent home due to the government shutdown, he said.

His wife, Marcia Rieke, also a UA astronomy professor and the principal investigator of the telescope’s near-infrared camera, had to cancel a flight to Greenbelt, Md., last week due to the shutdown. Marcia Rieke said she was supposed to perform “shake tests” on the instrument at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, home of the James Webb Space Telescope, in preparation for the telescope’s launch in 2018.

The James Webb Space Telescope will replace the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope. Its main functions will include looking to discover which galaxies formed first after the Big Bang and to characterize planets orbiting other stars.

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By Amy Phelps / Arizona Daily Wildcat
Amy Phelps/ Arizona Daily Wildcat George Rieke and Marcia Rieke, astronomy professors, work on developing the Webb telescope for NASA. The government shut down has effected the project's schedule, research, and funds.

Although the teams of astronomers working on the telescope can continue to work on certain pieces out of facilities not run by the federal government, some operations in the telescope’s construction have been paused until the shutdown ends, George Rieke said.

“There are a lot of people this kind of project has to keep paying to do things, and the project needs a huge amount of coordination,” he said, “It’s Goddard that has the job to keep it all organized, and so that’s the real disruption.”

Because the project’s budget was allocated through the end of the year, astronomers will continue to be paid and to work on the parts they have access to from places like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which is primarily run by the California Institute of Technology.

Chris Impey, deputy head of the astronomy department, said while UA employees can still work on the NASA project for now, the shutdown will eventually become more of an issue.

“Sub-contractors are able to work and U of A employees are able to work,” Impey said, “but if the center of the activity is not working, then that’s eventually going to be a big problem.”

While the shutdown hasn’t affected the timeline of the project’s launch, smaller effects are keeping pieces of the project from moving forward, such as emails that have gone unanswered because NASA employees aren’t allowed to respond to emails during the shutdown, George Rieke added.

Communication was suddenly cut off, which is starting to become more of a concern as the shutdown enters its second week, Marcia Rieke said.

“That’s the kind of thing where a day or two wouldn’t have made such a big difference,” Marcia Rieke said, “but when it starts to stretch into weeks, the last time you were given instructions from Goddard starts to be a long time ago.”

The telescope project is a group effort by NASA, the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency. Not only is the shutdown inconvenient for the astronomers working on the project, George Rieke said, it also makes the U.S. look like an unreliable partner to other countries.

“We’re just a pain to deal with because we’re not predictable,” George Rieke said. “Of all the problems they’ve had in the European Union, they haven’t had anything quite like this.”

- Follow Stephanie Casanova @_scasanova_


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