How much does NASA’s new telescope cost?

The James Webb Space Telescope cost $10.8bn. What does that mean?

On Christmas Day at 12:20 UTC, the James Webb Space Telescope successfully blasted off from French Guiana in what must surely be the best Christmas present for astronomers ever. Many have been waiting a significant fraction of their careers to see this mission finally leave planet Earth to search the skies for answers to fundamental questions about the formation of the first galaxies and whether we are alone in the universe.

Another fundamental question is: how much did it cost? This infographic puts the price of the Webb into context:

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Space exploration is often unfairly characterised as astronomically expensive but, in context, the amounts of money really aren’t sky-high. And it’s important to remember that we’re not just firing this cash into space in the form of giant hexagonal gold coins (though you’d be forgiven for thinking so, looking at JWST’s gorgeous golden mirrors): most of the money is given to scientists, engineers and businesses to design, build and operate the telescope, whose wages will end up in the wider economy, and whose scientific and technological know-how will have applications far beyond space exploration.

Missions as enormous as JWST also have enormous educational and inspirational value. Its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, produced such iconic images as the Pillars of Creation, and the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which have changed the way both scientists and the public view the universe. Indeed, making even deeper images of the same patches of sky Hubble captured in its deep field images is one of the first jobs on JWST’s list, giving us the chance to see further back in the evolution of galaxies than ever before, and the telescope an early opportunity to leave its mark on both science and culture.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Aside from a handful of stars in our own galaxy, every point of light in this image is itself a galaxy, some very near the edge of the observable universe. And this is a tiny patch of sky, about a tenth the width of the full moon—imagine how many galaxies are out there if it looks like this in all directions.

It’s going to take JWST several months to take up its final position and get ready for its first observations but, once it’s up and running, we can all enjoy the gift of its wonderful images.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Data

Data on the cost of JWST came from the excellent Planetary Society, who provide detailed data on the cost of dozens of space missions. US spending on Christmas presents comes from the 2021 Gallup survey of American adults’ gift-buying plans. Calculations are available in this spreadsheet.

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