Hubble's 20th: A Taxpayer's Perspective
    By Johannes Koelman | April 23rd 2010 04:48 PM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Johannes

    I am a Dutchman, currently living in India. Following a PhD in theoretical physics (spin-polarized quantum systems*) I entered a Global Fortune


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    Hip, hip, hooray. The Hubble has reached its twentieth anniversary* and is  still alive and kicking. Congratulations go to NASA and ESA. And to the Hubble itself. Long live the Hubble!

    Chances are, that by now you will be able to read more than a few blogs hailing the two decades of the Hubble as mankind's supreme window to the universe. And indeed, the Hubble has provided us with some spectacular pictures of the universe.

    Hubble Ultra deep FieldLet me share here what I think is the most impressive visual display the Hubble contributed to. It is a composite image resulting from combining Hubble images with those from a multitude of earthbound telescopes. The result is a beautiful interactive experience. When you zoom out (using the slide rule to the left) from the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (containing some 10,000 galaxies) to the scale of the full universe, you will be impressed by the amount of detail hidden in the night sky and unlocked by telescopes like the Hubble.
    Apart from the Ultra Deep Field, other famous Hubble pictures include the image of the Crab Nebula, and the well-known 'pillars of creation' showing stars being formed in the Eagle Nebula.

    Pictures like these have stunned astronomers and laypersons alike. But there is a flipside to these achievements. A flipside that should interest you as taxpayer.

    Dinner for two

    Crab Nebula (courtesy NASA/ESA)At the risk of thoroughly spoiling Hubble's birthday party, let me ask you a simple direct question. Any idea what the Hubble has cost you?

    Yes, I mean you personally.

    The answer depends on where you live. The average person living and paying taxes in the US, has paid an amount equivalent to a decent dinner-for-two towards the construction and maintenance of the Hubble. And don't fool yourself with the thought you haven't paid a dime because you live in Europe. European tax payers have also contributed to Hubble's staggering eleven digits total costs**, albeit by an amount significantly smaller than their US counterparts.

    But why be bothered about a mundane thing like costs? Look at what the Hubble has brought us! The Hubble has brought the beauty of the universe to the masses and changed our view on the universe and its origins. Surely one must be a hard-core bean counter to even consider Hubble's costs as a subject worth discussing!

    I agree full-heartedly with that statement. I am not in the least bothered by the amount I contribute to a scientific project, if that project can be expected to render spectacular new insights into the origin or workings of our universe. However, my generosity is fully linked to the assumption that my money will help rendering new insights. And the more I need to pay, the higher my expectations will be. And this is where the Hubble encounters significant issues.

    Benefits versus costs

    Do you indeed believe the Hubble has changed our view on the universe?

    I am not convinced at all. Surely, the Hubble has delivered truly spectacular pictures. Pictures that provide excellent screen savers.

    'Pillars of creation' (courtesy NASA/ESA)But pictures alone make no new science. So let me ask another birthday-spoiling question. A question not related to costs but to benefits. What are the Nobel-worthy discoveries from the twenty year Hubble project? Where is the spectacular science made possible by Hubble's specific capabilities?

    What I am after are the discoveries that could not have been realized without a space observatory like the Hubble. The type of stuff that simply could not have been done from much cheaper ground-based observatories. The questions becomes even more compelling if I ask “Would we have been worse off if we would have spend the Hubble budget on alternatives?” Alternatives like building more powerful earth observatories and launching non-serviceable dedicated probes for wavelengths that do not travel well through earth's atmosphere.

    There is a lot of PR associated with the Hubble, and it is easy to find many detailed and stunning Hubble pictures on the web. It is much more difficult, however, to find reliable information on the true scientific impact of the Hubble. Given how much you and I have paid to build and maintain the Hubble, I find that shocking.

    Often heard claims that the Hubble assisted in determining the expansion rate of the universe are correct. However, Hubble's role in this is minor and pales into insignificance compared to the highly successful, yet many orders of magnitude cheaper, WMAP satellite. The same is true for the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe: Hubble's role is minor at best compared to the role of the powerful earth based telescopes.

    This, by the way, seems to indicate a trend: the Hubble has difficulty in competing with state-of-the-art ground-based telescopes. Successful space probes such as the Nobel-winning COBE satellite, but also the more recent WMAP, Spitzer and Chandra satellites, do not compete with earth-based telescopes. They all observe at wavelengths that encounter difficulties in penetrating the atmosphere. These are the wavelengths well away from the visible light spectrum. These non-visible wavelengths are the ones at which space observation has an edge compared to earth based observations. The Hubble Space Telescope, observing at wavelengths close to and at the visible light spectrum, simply has difficulty to outperform the modern earth-based telescopes using adaptive optics.

    David versus Goliath

    The tiny Hubble (courtesy NASA/ESA)What does the Hubble lack compared to large earth-based telescopes? The answer is simple: light gathering power.

    Telescopes are 'light buckets'. The single most relevant parameter to express a telescope's capability is its light gathering capacity. A larger light-gathering capacity not only renders fainter objects visible, but also increases the maximum amount of detail that can be resolved by the telescope. So, to put things properly in perspective, one should compare the light-gathering power of powerful earth-based telescopes like the Keck to that of the Hubble. The result might surprise you: a single Keck telescope, whilst costing less than 1% of the Hubble, has the light-gathering capability of 17 Hubbles.

    These are compelling figures. Although other factors play a role as well,*** the Hubble can hardly compete with powerful ground-based observatories.

    And now the true giants are arriving! The prospects provided by three spectacular proposals to make a leap forward in deep space observation are truly enthralling. The Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) and the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) are all in the race to reign supreme in the decades to come.

    How do these proposed giants compare to the Hubble? The figures are truly mind blowing:

    GMT (24.5 m diameter): 100 Hubbles

    TMT (30 m diameter): 150 Hubbles

    E-ELT (42 m diameter): 300 Hubbles

    Spectacular numbers, but what price tag is attached to these extreme proposals?
    Again, be ready for a surprise. The most costly of these proposals, the E-ELT, will carry a price tag equal to about 10% of the Hubble costs. That is 300 Hubbles for the price well below a single Hubble service mission.

    Wow, that is a steal! So when will these giant telescopes be ready?

    You might be disappointed (in fact: you should be) to hear that none of these proposals have received full funding yet. In terms of our capability to achieve consistency in science funding, this is a sobering message indeed. To again place things in perspective: if only the last (2009) Hubble service mission would not have been carried out, the savings would easily have covered the total costs of either of these powerful telescopes.

    I truly hope that the crowds of taxpayers enthusiastic about the Hubble will display an equal enthusiasm for the GMT, TMT and E-ELT proposals. You have paid for an exquise dinner for two. For these giants outperforming the Hubble the costs will be limited to that of a hamburger meal. And be prepared for a hamburger meal that will be better than anything you tasted before!

    King Hubble is dead. Long live the new emperors!

    * The Hubble was launched on March 24, 1990.

    ** Pre-launch costs total $ 2.5 billion, yet the subsequent five service missions add $ 9.6 billion to the total bill [].

    *** Several remarks can be made about the comparison between the Hubble and modern mountain-top telescopes. At the time the Hubble was designed and build, such comparisons were largely irrelevant as the performance of earth-based telescopes were limited by atmospheric distortion. This, however, is no longer the case. Thanks to the advent of adaptive optics the comparison is relevant, and the Hubble finds itself in the role of David competing with several earthbound Goliaths. The Hubble partly makes up for its limited light gathering power by allowing longer exposures. Also, the Hubble outperforms its earth-based competitors in widefield capabilities and is not hampered by atmospheric effects such as airglow. However, even if we give the Hubble credits for all of this, in comparison to modern earth-bound telescopes, the Hubble can impossibly live up to the expectations one should have based on the investments made.


    Johannes - Rather than using the entire eight figure cost of the Hubble over twenty years, I think the annual cost to a taxpayer would be a much more palatable $2.50, rather than fifty bucks or so. Another factor you did not mention is the educational and entertainment value. Support for NASA science depends on Congressional perception of the individual taxpayer's curiosity about our universe, the solar system and our planet. Selling a NASA budget of $16 billion would be much tougher in the absence of visual aids.

    Johannes Koelman
    Dave -- I agree that NASA has done an impressive job in terms of science outreach. They have taken this to an unprecedented level and don't seem to shy away from the associated costs (e.g. I wonder about the outcome if anyone would go through the effort of calculating the total cost of the Hubble 3D movie production).

    On how to engage the wider public, those managing earth-based observatories can learn a lot from NASA. Most of the successful public engagement surrounding the Hubble could have been accomplished at a fraction of the cost by ground-based observatories.

    The issue is that the larger public is constantly exposed to highly inflated claims on the scientific relevance of the Hubble. I would like to see full transparency on this: Hubble's main accomplishment is not to have progressed science, but rather to have fed the natural curiosity of the wider public.

    I don't see why the 11 (not 8) figure cost of the Hubble should be divided by total duration of the mission. If NASA/ESA would have spend the same amount and delivered the same results in only ten years, the outcome for me would not change. What is relevant to me is the total amount I have paid (somewhere in the range between $ 50 - $ 100) to get delivered pictures like 'the pillars of creation'.
    Even if the answer is "yes" (because Wal-Mart and plenty of other businesses do not have to make the same margin, or anything at all, on everything it sells) it is important that someone is asking the question about whether or not Hubble has value for the cost.   This is usually a no-no in science, where funding can never be cut off for anything lest a slippery slope occur. 

    NASA has spent a ton on it and a lot promoting the images; maybe they could at least outsource the promotion.    The original boondoggle nature of the Hubble and its persistent problems in no small measure led to cancellation of the SSC a few years later and big science projects for America in general.
    Johannes Koelman
    [..] it is important that someone is asking the question about whether or not Hubble has value for the cost.   This is usually a no-no in science [..]
    Indeed. Maybe it is my Dutch Calvinistic nature, but it continues to surprise me that even in independent blogs it seems not done to challenge the funding of projects like the Hubble. I have seen lot's of blogs making exaggerating claims about Hubble's achievements, but no single blog that is in any way critical about the value/cost ratio of the Hubble.
    The $10B+ of the Hubble is indeed outrageous. This could pay for at least four weeks of war in Iraq.

    Just to put things in perspective. And if I remember well, none of the modern "active" and "synthetic" telescopes were in service when the Hubble was put in action.


    Johannes Koelman
    [..] if I remember well, none of the modern "active" and "synthetic" telescopes were in service when the Hubble was put in action.
    That is probably true. Yet, the vast majority of the money spent on the Hubble got spent much more recently (latest in 2009), at a time adaptive optics was a proven technology.
    One has to take into account what they knew when they launched and did the Hubble project. Lots of interferometry, and atmospheric correction technology didn't exist yet. I am unclear how much they could have foreseen this.( terrible wikipedia stub, btw.)

    PS.(enormously aside) i have a default white-on-black font. If you change the the color of the letters, don't leave the colors of the background to default.

    Johannes Koelman
    I agree as far as the initial costs are concerned. But as stated above: these are minor (in relative terms, that is).

    PS A better wikilink is
    Hey Mr. Koelman;

    I do not dispute what you've said about actual scientific value; I'm concerning myself here entirely with astro-p.r., i.e. the pictures.

    Are we getting anything resembling the spectacular hubble photos from ground-based telescopes? I tried a few searches and could not immediately find any telescopic images comparable to hubble's. Is this because of the atmospheric EM cutoff, or will these new large adaptive scopes be able to generate at least some kind of 'hubble-like' imagery?

    Johannes Koelman
    Earth-based observatories don't publish many 'astros-PR' images (the Keck website shows a few, see e.g. ).
    Main reason for this is probably that those deciding on observation time allocation focus solely on scientific measurements rather than on the generation of pretty wallpapers. Also, the Hubble is more suited for wide-angle pictures.
    It appears that NASA has its own Disney Studio for compiling these fancy Hubble images: . It's somewhere in-between art and science.

    It seems very unlikely that NASA will ever again launch a serviceable space observatory like the HST. HST is the first and the last such costly instrument.

    I do fully agree that small spatial missions, that focus on a specific objective, are much more cost-effective than the Swiss knife Hubble. However a few precisions to you bill are necessary:

    (1) Adaptive optics at Hubble's wavelengths has not implemented in any ground-based facility because of technical limitations (atmosphere is fast at optical wavelenghts). As a consequence thereof, Hubble has a resolution power about one order of magnitude better than these ground-based telescopes.

    (2) Hubble is not less sensitive that the largest ground-based telescopes, despite of its relatively small size. The reason is that ground-based facilities are serverly limited by the sky brightness. (FORS2 on the VLT and imaging with HST appear to have approximately the same limiting magnitude, with a small advantage to Hubble.)

    The cost of the Hubble is the suffering of the ignored. Until, at least, the children of this world are relieved of the sufferings of disease and poverty I do not want one cent of my money going to it.

    Gerhard Adam
    What an interestingly naive and misplaced notion about the world.
    Mundus vult decipi
    You are musically inclined, let me put it in a song.

    Big Trouble Tomorrow Today

    One day the people woke up,
    they new then the leaders obfuscated.
    Buried the danger so deep,
    that they could live in the “I didn’t know”.

    The tipping point now we have reached.
    Time table accelerating, leaders don’t speak.
    Permafrost melting, gasses released.
    Sold the future for luxury.

    They’re all covered in oil,
    covered in oil.

    If we started today would it be to late,
    better to fight the hard fight.
    Change a life style, change a horrible fate.
    Oh, we have to cease our taking ways.

    Must leave something for the children.
    No time to waste it’s already running late.
    I’m talking about change, I’m talking through the gate.

    With you,
    it all lies.

    The only way we can do this I see,
    is to turn your money away from the games and the want kings.
    The stars you make so rich,
    now have to be the ones working for the betterment of mankind.

    Oh don’t you see you have your finger on the key.
    What you want goes the flow of the money.
    The earth bears such deep scars don’t you see.
    Turn that Hubble around, spent to much there too.

    You are all cover in oil,
    Covered in oil.

    Come out with it in plain English you say,
    you are in big trouble tomorrow today.
    The path is hard a very giving way,
    you are in big trouble tomorrow today.

    Oh though the reward,
    you get back what he gave.
    Your grandchildren won’t have to live in depletion
    only for the nature you save.
    The sun will rise
    will it be to dust and haze.
    I’m talking mass change, I’m talking today.

    Even if it’s already to late
    no longer be covered in oil.

    Then the little one had a dream,
    he was there alone with the teacher.
    Lack of care laid waste everything,
    there alone with the teacher.

    Oh the American why can’t he see.
    If the whole world consumes like him we would cease to be.
    Only the little one
    that’s all that was left.

    else was gone.

    by EzJack

    Copyright © 2005

    "What an interestingly naive and misplaced notion about the world." that you must have.
    I can see where this happens when one walks in the ill fitting shoes of an intellectual. Forced there by a need of self worth because in the real world he has left in a wake of ruin the relationships of those lives he helped conceive. Justifying gaining every day necessities off women by the illusion that as long as he is intelligent he has worth.
    Sorry, there I go talking about time travel, let me get back to the subject.
    Naive, nay, I see the world with eyes that are near impossible for you to use but are the easiest to obtain for I'm from the trenches. I work for those who are battling devastating disease every day. I help child bust out of the circle of child abuse. I spend...I could go on but the bottom line is I am overwhelmed. I can't get enough help or funds to do all that needs to be done in this one small part of the world I'm in. I'm only talking about the very basics. I am knee deep in the real world. All that I'm saying is lets get our world straight before we contemplate the heavens.

    Gerhard Adam
    I am knee deep in the real world. All that I'm saying is lets get our world straight before we contemplate the heavens.
    While I can appreciate the intent and motivation of people that want to help others, let's also maintain a bit better perspective.  The truth is that in your "real world", you'd still be pounding rocks together to make fire if we had to solve all our problems with people before we could contemplate anything of a wider scope.

    Anyone that is honest already knows that there is no method or means available to eliminate the misery humans are capable of generating or perpetrating on each other.  To suggest that such problems are actually solvable is truly naive. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    "While I can appreciate the intent and motivation of people that want to help others, let's also maintain a bit better perspective. The truth is that in your "real world", you'd still be pounding rocks together to make fire if we had to solve all our problems with people before we could contemplate anything of a wider scope."

    Er, ah, okay, hmm
    I would never question your ability to think or reason but let us realize where we are at in human history and that the discussion is about tax dollars going to space exploration.
    I'm not saying less science I am saying more. Send it in the direction of the betterment of us all. We are on a spiral to extinction and the clock is ticking . We have to spend a lot less on space exploration, entertainment, sports, military madness, the pursuit of stuff, and spend more, on education (to get people to breed less, consume less, live in smaller more efficient housing),on the development of renewable energy , on anything to give us a fighting chance. I've done the math (including sociological factors) and we don't have enough time if we start today. I am not "naive"(apparently your favorite word) and think man will get his head out of his "better perspective" a,, but I can help some suffer less now. I can guide some to deal with being abused so they won't carry on the family tradition and I can dare to work on a change of direction. Things don't make me tick . It's the wonderful moments I have had that do and these I would never trade.

    "Anyone that is honest already knows that there is no method or means available to eliminate the misery humans are capable of generating or perpetrating on each other. To suggest that such problems are actually solvable is truly naive."

    You then will have no chance for you are done before you even started. You will never reconcile with the love ones you left behind and will never know what you have missed. One who thinks in such a way would have most likely abandoned their own children and are in danger of experiencing an eternity of great sorrow.

    I on the other hand have improved the lot of many who will in turn change the future for the better by changing those who might have been a burden on society into productive citizens. I am not alone, there are many of us working hard and are getting results though we need so many more. Our success can be limited by those who think like you . It's a lazy way to think for if you are done before you start you don't have to.

    The bottom line is, I don't want MY tax dollars going to space exploration even though in the future our existence will depend on it because said future will not know man if we don't change today.

    PS I don't have time to proofread so please forgive.

    Gerhard Adam
    As I said before, I don't have a problem with your spending as much time and effort as you like to helping others and trying to "fix" society.  If you truly believe it can be fixed, then I will invoke my favorite word and say that is "naive".  If you merely believe you can make a difference, then I will agree with you.
    You will never reconcile with the love ones you left behind and will never know what you have missed. One who thinks in such a way would have most likely abandoned their own children and are in danger of experiencing an eternity of great sorrow.
    How do you make such quantum leaps in logic [or illogic as the case may be]?  I've never said that people can't be helped, nor that individuals should behave badly.  I simply said, unambiguously, that the problems that people are capable of creating will NEVER be solved.  NEVER. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Ah, you threw my two NEVERs back at me.

    I will concede that you have a chance to get over the mountain of incredulity and to reconcile in time to be a part of the lives of the grandchildren . I do recommended not being critical and to enjoy the children for whom they are.

    Now there is a chance I am way off base hear and you are a wonderful father who has a warm relationship with his children. If this is the case all you have to do is not responded and I will cease to analyze people on just the few typed sentences that they send my way. I will also concede that society can't be fixed as I go on my way to fix what I can. I also hope we will have a chance to bump heads again.

    If you chose to respond , no matter what you type, I will believe I am right and will go on my way. You don't have to be honest on what you type you just have to be on if you respond or not.
    bad = response
    good= no response
    You have the last word.

    Well, alright then.
    What originally led me here was the JWST. Even though the funding for it has run a muck I am bothered by my belief that there are more urgent issues that great minds need to address. Of course my first post here refers to my chosen battles. We all have our thing. Joe rocket boy wants to go back to the moon. Billy Bob philosopher wants to work it until he has it right. Zippy the chemist extraordinaire wants to make the perfect shake. So it goes. The thing I want to know is do we have the time to play our own game. The great minds of our time (to me) appear oblivious to a game stopping problem on our horizon, energy. They must think a couple of hundred years is way off. Just to get the world back in shape and the population down to live the old way will take boo-coo years let alone the time it will take to convince even a single community that they have to start the change now. What will be known as the oil wars have already started and the human suffering counter is clicking. We are popping the peak and things are going to get real dicey. I also get the feeling their burn rates on fossil fuels are way out of whack so that couple of hundred years could be closer to fifty. That means the shizzaroo should start hitting the fan now. Whatcha going to do great minds? We all need you.
    I don't have higher education. I sit in a power station keeping an eye on a computer that they don't seem to trust. I don't know much but what I do know is that just a simple one month collapse of the power infrastructure would send the locals into a freaky holiday that would rival the night of the living dead. So I see all this suffering coming, starting now, and I wonder is anyone going to fight this war. I asked God what's up and he said galaxies collide, shizz happens, the important thing that will be written is what you did about it.

    A song for a peace offering.

    The Keeper

    Palms swaying in the breeze
    gotta let it go.
    Red sun rising from the sea
    gotta let it go.
    Together walking along the shore,
    hoping it’s the same for you.
    Nature rolling in,
    forever changing.

    Dolphin circling, herding the fish,
    that’s the way it goes.
    Then attack, a feeding frenzy,
    that’s the way it goes.
    Cold coming in,
    Manatee heading to
    Blue Springs where it’s warm
    all the time.

    Pelican swoops in rides the crest of the wave,
    oh look at it go.
    Lucky this time hooks the fish midway,
    oh look at it go.
    Sets me to wondering,
    what we are missing.
    The keeper that doesn’t understand what has been given.

    Once a year sea turtle lays it’s eggs,
    oh look at it grow.
    Hatched young fighting for every inch of life,
    very few may grow.
    Heading out to sea,
    where it all began.
    Part of the circle they are,
    not so for man.

    Then the crowds came
    cement closing in,
    I can’t take it anymore.
    Wondering, searching for something that was left,
    I can’t take it anymore.
    Then we hit Turtle Mound Rd,
    between the river and the sea.
    Should of been more left,
    all life has the right to be.

    by EzJack

    Copyright ©