NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
Managers of the James Webb Space Telescope are envisioning a big change in how observations are shared, which could have a major impact on the science that is made – and on who can make it.
As it stands now, if an astronomer makes a proposal to design this $10 billion space telescope, and the proposal is accepted, the scientist has almost a year of exclusive access to the resulting observations.
Now, though, with the federal government pushing for more fund-funded research to be made public immediately, telescope administrators are wondering whether all the data collected by JWST should be immediately available to everyone.
They are planning a similar change for the venerable Hubble Space Telescope. Currently, scientists who get the opportunity to use this instrument usually enjoy six months of exclusive access to their observations.
Supporters of open access say that sharing the findings of all these local telescopes at once could accelerate new discoveries and maximize returns from these powerful scientific assets.
Critics, however, worry that this could exacerbate existing injustices in those involved in astronomical research, and perhaps even in a more obscure science, such as the kind of scientists who are the first to find hidden gems in the data.
“It’s very controversial,” says Alessandra Aloisi, chief mission scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, home of science and mission operations for Hubble and JWST. Astronomers are now taking the temperature on this issue, with the survey closing on February 15.
There is a strong feeling on both sides, says Aloisi, and that astronomy is a competitive field.
“It’s very hard to be successful,” he said. “And everything that is contrary to what is seen, is bad from the community.”
centuries of tradition
Astronomers have turned their telescopes to the sky for hundreds of years. They established a tradition of how and when to share pictures of what they had seen.
“The data were more or less owned by whoever came up with the idea to make the observations in the first place,” says Eric Smith, associate director of research in NASA’s Astrophysical Sciences Division’s mission directorate in Washington, DC.
An astronomer who physically used a ground telescope owned his records.
“Originally it was just hand drawn, and then glass plates were made, and then in some cases films, and finally magnetic tapes,” explains Smith. “Whoever went to the observatory took those data home with them, and as they put them in their office, or put them in some vault of the university.”
The advent of the space age meant that radio telescopes could send electronic data back to Earth. That meant you could create power, together.
And because these were expensive, Assario-based telescopes, says Cicero, “we weren’t going to go with the old model where you’re going to keep your office forever.”
But the tradition was not completely abandoned. The custom, which began with Hubble, was that astronomers who won time on the telescope would be granted exclusive access to their observations for a certain period of time.
“And then after this it becomes public information that he gave to the public,” says Cicero.
This approach refers to the idea that a scientist deserves some time and financial resources to develop an original idea that leads to the first observations.
After all, when you try to convince this idea and expert advice to spend your precious time on the telescope, it is no mean feat.
“It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work,” said Eilat Glikman, an astronomer at Middlebury College in Vermont, who estimates that he spent two weeks full time, recording his first success using Hubble.
The majority of proposals have to be rejected because the demand for these tools exceeds the available time.
But if all the observations of telescopes are immediately placed in a public repository, says Aloisi, “everyone who has a scientific idea can use them.”
And those scientific investigations have nothing to do with the original purpose of the scientist, she notes. “You multiply the number of discoveries and the discoveries of these great missions increase the income.”
Back in 2017, he says, Hubble’s period of exclusive access was cut from a year to six months.
“The community fought very hard not to do that, I remember. Back then it was very controversial,” said Aloisi. “And now, it’s the norm. People can’t even question it anymore.”
And there is an even stronger case for reducing exclusive access periods for JWST, which is so far from Earth that it could not be repaired in any way, as Hubble was. That means it’s not expected to last as long, and could quickly increase the power of telescopes to give astronomers access to everything they see.
Whether to move to immediate open access for these telescopes will be discussed among the astronomy community and with NASA’s international partners, says Aloisi.
“Do you want my honest opinion? We will go in that direction,” he said. “It’s not just necessary to bring us all together. I think it’s a matter of science.”
Fear of getting into a cave
But Glikman says that not all astronomers have the same amount of time or resources to devote to telescope data analysis; for example, his teaching within the limits of his college how much time he can devote to research.
Even now, the scientist who brought the data back from the space telescope knows that other astronomers are waiting to learn about it when it becomes public.
Glikman mentions the work of one discovery in the data with a colleague. They have not yet published a scientific paper on their findings. But after the data was published, another group went around and found the same thing. They contacted their colleague, asking them to help, which was awkward.
“It was a moment of tension,” Glikman said. “Not to be like, this is mine, but I’ve put so much effort into this, and I’m working on it… I’ll finish it.”
If the periods of exclusive access are gone, he worries that researchers with fewer interests will tend to be drawn by competitors.
“People who have time, people who have resources will be able to jump in and, I don’t know, a hard worker who has earned this observation,” says Glikman.
Jackie Faherty, an astrophysicist with the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, says it’s similar to those who disagree with her.
“I am committed to equal knowledge and to making the telescope, which is the opposite of the public telescope, accessible to everyone and given to everyone at the same time,” he said, noting that some telescopes are designed to look at certain areas of the sky in large packages. to do now
But he felt the challenges that came with the open access plan while working with some of the first release data collected by JWST, which was to be released very quickly to show what this new tool could do.
“I don’t like the pressure that comes when there is no period of ownership,” says Faherty, describing it as a kind of “mental gymnastics” that comes from “constantly certain processes whether work on that information is established or not.”
He noticed that this was especially difficult for scientists of early careers, who were not experts in making analyzes and who, in their role, were much more involved in their work.
Any move to open data access for these space telescopes would come with the ability to request an exception, which would give scientists proposing short-term exclusive access, Faherty says.
But the question is, what should such a person receive?
Aloisi said that one possibility would be if the proposed research was part of the graduate work of a student who, because of his inexperience, needed more time to get up to speed. Another possibility may be a researcher whose teaching load makes it impossible to do independent research except in the summer.
“These are all very powerful reasons,” says Aloisi.
It’s time for the astronomy community to figure this out. Last month, scientists submitted proposals for the next cycle of JWST observations, and the announcement of the winners will come in May. Whatever submissions will be accepted will come with an existing exclusive access period.
That means, even if decisions about open access and these space telescopes could be made in the next six months, says Aloisi, “it will take a year or so, or maybe longer, to filter through the system.”
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